The wind is bitter in the brambles, whipping plastic bags snagged on old roses and freezing the poisonous rain in the abandoned tires in the ditch, but in the middle of the broken street in thin sun, a small coffee-brown cat is waiting quietly, until, at 3 o’clock, Edwin Ramos trundles down the hill above the river honking the horn of his 20-year-old purple Honda.
The little brown cat hops up and out from the brambles, the roses and winter goldenrod, cats—tortoise shells, tabbies, slate grey, marmalade orange and one a fluffy glamorous white- come streaming and pouncing, yawning, rolling in the gravel, leaping up to the old loading dock along the chain link as he arrives. It’s time for lunch.
Edwin Ramos is 37. He looks young. Getting out of the Honda, he is tall and thin, moving slowly with the rattling Tupperware of 9-Lives.
This is Kitty City. The cats gather along the edge of the loading dock jostling, but not fighting and Ramos doles out fistfuls of crunchy orange food along the ledge.
While Ramos changes their water, talking about the colony, he introduces the cats.
“That’s Benjy. He has a little tiny meow. The black one. Her name is Harry. There’s Dark Fluffy and Light Fluffy…and Angry Teddy. He’s not angry, actually. He’s sweet.”
The colony Ramos cares for are “community cats” outdoor, not owned, free roaming as defined by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It’s estimated there are tens of millions of community cats in the US.
A grey tabby with tidy white feet trots out from under a broken lilac. Her name is Peggy. He bends down and she bonks his hand with her head. They trust him.
As the cats eat crouching over their lunch, one has left the group. He is on the road coughing, stretching his neck out and sounding like a little trumpet.
“Upper respiratory infection,” Ramos said. “I hate seeing him like that. But as long as he’s eating, drinking, showing interest. I’m hoping he’ll be okay. I’m giving him meds to prevent a bacterial infection. When his discharge starts changing color, I’ll take him to the vet,” Ramos said.
Ramos doesn’t’ just feed the cats, he’s knowledgeable about cat health and goes to the Radford Animal Hospital where he was able to set up an account for Kitty City Refuge.
“I make sure they’re all eating. I just look while they eat and you can tell for the most part who is not feeling well, if they cough or if they’re walking funny.”
For four years, Ramos has fed and cared for this colony – there are 15 cats here this afternoon. Over the years, some have died, some disappeared, he took three home, too sick or injured to stay outside – one who needed its eye removed, one filthy with a bowel syndrome, another, Bob, with feline autoimmune disease.
He places memorial stones for lost cats hidden in the roses.
Social animals, cats that are born and raised in the wild or who have been abandoned or lost, form colonies around food sources. A cat in a “managed” colony that has a caretaker, like Ramos, might live 10 years, without a caretaker, a stray cat might live two.
And it’s a community effort for people too. Ramos, with the help of supportive veterinarians and the private, nonprofit, animal welfare organization, Animal Hope Alliance, catches and neuters these cats.
“They’ve all been fixed by Animal Hope Alliance. AHA does “trap and release” or T& R, neutering, vaccinating and returning the animals to their colonies,” Ramos said.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals considers T&R the “only humane and effective method to manage community cat colonies.
“There hasn’t been a kitten here in years,” Ramos said. Both Ramos and Animal Hope Alliance work in conjunction with Animal Control in Radford, Montgomery and Giles to monitor the cats for disease.
Ramos feeds this colony regularly, and tries to protect them from trouble.
“I’m down here ten times a day. My schedule with these guys is between 7 and 9 in the morning, I’ll come down here and feed them. Change the water. Then, in the afternoon. Same thing. Change the water, give them food. Then any time – it drives my wife crazy – any time literally any time I have to go anywhere, I stop by. I loop around just in case I see something I don’t recognize, I can come down and introduce myself.”
No one has ever hurt the cats, and people come to help.
“I tell people just leave dry food. Don’t leave wet food. People tend to over-do it because they worry,” he said.
He gives them more food in the winter than in the summer. They don’t seem to be eating birds or mice.
“The birds wait to finish the cat food. I’ve never seen them catch a bird.”
Before Ramos discovered this colony, a couple had fed and watered them for years. Before that, the story is that a veteran who worked at the foundry cared for them for 15 years before that. But for a stray animal, help is tenuous.
“He took care of 40 cats, but something happened and he had to leave.”
Ramos was already rescuing cats and colonies when he arrived in Radford from Richmond two years ago.
“I had nine rescues, and I convinced my wife to let me bring seven,” he said. “My wife is awesome.”
And it’s expensive. Thousands of dollars for eye and teeth removal, steroids for bowel diseases and single-protein diets, flea treatments, antibiotics for coughs.
“I have my money well-organized and I don’t spend money on frivolous things. I’ll spend it on them all day.”
He and his wife, a professor at Radford University, bought a house with the requirement of a fenced yard for the cats
“My life literally revolves around them. My wife and I come down on Thanksgiving and gave them their own wet food. You have to go quick. She started from one end and I started on the other,” he said laughing.
He made a little video and has a Kitty City webpage.
“I guess my heart is big enough to deal with the pain. I think about it all the time. Inevitably, life will take its course. Some of them I’ll never know what happened they’ll just not show up.”
With a cat named Merlin they brought in from the woods, so sick he could not control his bowels, Ramos and his wife cared for the cat.
“With Merlin it was tough. For months every day, we had to bathe him two or three times a day. He couldn’t control it. I was like, “Dude!” Eventually we got it under control. My wife is awesome,” he said.
Animal Hope Alliance estimates there are 10 cat colonies in Blacksburg, 10 more in Christiansburg, about five in Radford.
“These are ones in public places like behind shopping centers, in mobile home parks or in apartment complexes. Some people have their own private colonies in their yards that I have not counted,” Betty Bartschmid, treasurer and founding member of Animal Hope Alliance said.
Because those colonies have been managed many for over 10 years and because no kittens have been born into them, some colonies are down to one cat.
“Most of these colonies, even though they started out with 20 or more cats, are now down to fewer than five.”
With the help of AHA and supportive vets, Ramos spends a considerable amount of time and money. Just for Kitty City health care
“Not counting the 12 at my house, I spend about 40-60$ a month on 20 pound bags of foods. And if they get sick I take them to the vet. I drive a 20 year old car with crank-up windows.”
Friends help, hauling hundred pound bags of cat food to him that will last six weeks.
“Most people do it because they love cats and they are compassionate and don’t want to see them be hungry and cold,” Bartschmid said. “If someone cannot have cats in their home due to allergies or the landlord or some other reason, taking care of community cats is a way for them to have cats in a sense. It is also joy and a burden for most of us I believe. We enjoyed seeing the cats happy and healthy. We like it when they know our car and come running out to greet us with their tails straight up in the air. It can be a burden on our time
Some I won’t know what happened to them. Others, like Bob, I couldn’t help. I can only hope nothing happens and just hope for the best,” he said. “I’m gonna go through a lot of heart ache and pain taking care of …let’s see…these 15, 12 at home…27 cats. S the chances of one of them dying every year is pretty high. And I mix in treats now and then.”
Some cats, like Sky, he said, travel or just never come back.
“I try to be optimistic. Oreo travels from here down to Central lumber. Maybe somebody else starts feeding them or it’s sunnier, the food is better.”
While Montgomery County Animal Care and Control regulations recognize that people care for cat colonies and states that it wants to reduce euthanasia when adoption is possible, most community cats are unadoptable.
The work might seem heartbreaking, worrying about cats missing their warm houses, kind people, confused by their situation and lonely.
But Betty says it’s anthropomorphic to ascribe loneliness to cats.
“I don’t find it to be heartbreaking work, but probably some people do. Some people have tremendous empathy towards the cats and impart human characteristics to them. They believe that since they would not want to live like that, then the cats do not want to live like that,” she said.
“We help the situation. Make sure the cats are okay. Animal Control doesn’t want to bring them in. They’re unadoptable.”