As soon as Lori Bogda arrived Monday at the future site of her new restaurant, she found the property was already a bed-and-breakfast to more than 20 feral cats.
The cats clambered for food on every porch, hid in storage sheds and crawl spaces, and fought in the yard that Bogda and partner John Cherol hope to transform into an outdoor dining area for their May River Road restaurant, Jack's Old Town Bluffton.
Concerned so many cats would create unsanitary conditions, Bogda asked Beaufort County Animal Control to remove the colony from the property, which formerly housed Pepper's Porch. However, her conversations with volunteers and the director of the animal shelter revealed a misunderstanding in their agreement with land owner Roberts Vaux, she said.
Vaux said that with his permission, volunteers had been feeding the animals ever since their former caretakers shuttered Pepper's Porch more than a year ago. The Bluffton attorney, however, said the cats were supposed to be relocated as soon as they were tested, spayed and neutered. After that occurred, they were returned to the property.
"It was never understood that the cats would remain there indefinitely," Vaux said.
Bogda and Cherol said they simply want the animals humanely moved.
"It was a temporary arrangement that somehow was misinterpreted," Cherol said. "I'm an animal lover, too, but we're not talking about just one or two cats."
"And when you're serving food outside ..." Bogda said. "It's a health concern."
The Southern cuisine restaurant, which will include several bars, a general store and an arcade, will open in two to three months, Bogda said.
Tallulah Trice, director of the county animal shelter, referred questions to county spokeswoman Joy Nelson, who said many Old Town residents liked the feral cat population. The animal shelter had no plans to move the animals until Bogda called, Nelson said.
"I don't think (Trice) sat down at night and was figuring out who would like cats and who wouldn't like cats," Nelson said. "I guess it's because the former tenants did run a restaurant and they had absolutely no problem with the cats, but to each his own."
Over the next few weeks, all of the animals will be trapped and moved to other locations and feral cat colonies, which are currently being counted by the county, according to Frannie Gerthoffer, executive director of the Hilton Head Humane Association. Other colonies, in which the cats have been spayed and neutered, have been moved before, Gerthoffer said, though the process is complicated.
"What we're doing is just making sure its a win-win," she said. "We're getting a nice response from people who are happy to absorb some of these cats, so it'll work out."
Jack's also donated $250 to the association, according to Libby O'Regan, who does marketing for the restaurant.
Volunteers Kelly Ryden and Julie Roman said they were disappointed their "babies" were leaving. For the past few days, they have set out food in the woods across from Jack's by a small ravine.
"I just don't want them to be uprooted," said Ryden, 49. "If I had a farm with a barn, there'd be no feral cat colonies. They'd all be at my house."
Another tenant of Vaux's property, however, said the relocation is a long time coming. The cats frequently ran into Barbie Turner's flower business, CCF Designs, and left messes throughout the property, she said.
"I think they think that parking lot is one giant litter box," Turner said. "It's horrible."
While Nelson said residents also appreciate the cats' ability to catch rodents, Turner said she and other tenants would hire companies to control any pest problems that arise.
"I know a million people who don't have cats and don't have rats," she added.
"I don't wish any ill will for the cats, but if you care for them that much, take them home. That's what I did."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.
- Bluffton cat lovers get help trimming feral cat population, June 5, 2011: http://bit.ly/1oz3Qis