Feral cats pose a dilemma for communities, setting at odds animal lovers and business owners.
Animal advocates rightfully point out that these cats are not accustomed to human contact so they cannot easily be adopted. A compassionate solution is to let them live in undeveloped areas, cared for by big-hearted volunteers. It is viewed as a kinder approach than euthanizing them en masse or leaving them unsupervised in the wild where they may suffer and die from starvation, disease or inclement weather.
On the other hand, feral cats can cause big problems, even when cared for by well-intentioned volunteers.
They can devastate bird populations. A 2013 study published in the journal Nature Communications found that cats may kill up to 3.7 billion birds and 20.7 billion mammals in the United States annually.
Additionally, if they are not spayed or neutered, they can procreate at an alarming rate. One female cat can produce about a dozen kittens annually, exacerbating the nation's feral cat overpopulation problem that the Humane Society of the United States estimates at about 50 million animals.
And in growing communities, feral cats can be a nuisance to business owners and homeowners.
That's just the situation Lori Bogda and John Cherol recently found themselves in. The two plan to open a Southern cuisine restaurant named Jack's Old Town Bluffton on May River Road at the former site of Pepper's Porch. But during visits to the site, they found about two dozen feral cats living on the property.
Many in Bluffton enjoy the cats' presence, noting they keep rodent populations down. All of the animals have been spayed/neutered so they're not growing their ranks. And volunteers who care for the cats consider them their babies and don't want them uprooted.
While we appreciate these sentiments, we are more moved by prospective business owners, willing to start a new business on a site that has sat vacant since Pepper's Porch closed more than a year ago. The restaurant, which will include several bars, a general store and an arcade, has the potential to provide jobs, draw in both residents and tourists and add to the tax base.
And Bogda and Cherol are right that 20-plus cats could negatively impact their startup business. Some customers will be allergic to cats. Others won't like the animals seeking table scraps. And let's not even mention the cat fighting and litter box-like activity they're certain to do as well, which could lead to sanitation problems. Plus, the increase in traffic on the site could lead to cats being mangled or worse.
While the county has said the owners of Pepper's Porch were not bothered by the cats, that doesn't mean the new owners are obligated to feel the same way and put up with dozens of unwanted cats.
We believe a fair -- and humane -- compromise has been found. The Hilton Head Humane Association has agreed to trap the cats and move them to a new locations where they will be absorbed into other feral cat colonies.
The association has successfully moved colonies before even though the process is a complicated one, said Frannie Gerthoffer, executive director of the Hilton Head Humane Association.
"What we're doing is just making sure its a win-win," Gerthoffer said. "We're getting a nice response from people who are happy to absorb some of these cats, so it'll work out."
The community owes a big thank you to the association and the local residents, willing to give the cats a new home and a fledgling business a better chance to succeed.
As the economy continues to improve and the construction pace quickens, more animals' rights vs. business rights flashpoints are likely to arise. The Hilton Head Humane Association has proven that, with a little work, compromises can be brokered that give both animals and businesses an opportunity to thrive.