For weeks, Martha Truscott and Diane Jellison watched over the dozen or so cats living in the abandoned house on Lewiston Junction Road in Auburn. Nearly all were kittens - some seemed as old as six months, others as young as four weeks — all apparently born from the same mother, the only adult cat in the group. Skinny and starving, they wandered in and out of the house through broken windows. The body of one cat lay out front.
"Nothing's worse than what you see over there," Jellison said.
Except, possibly, what's across the river.
In Lewiston, Cynthia Parent also is concerned about a group of a dozen or so abandoned cats. These adult cats — mostly clean, friendly and obviously well-loved pets at one time — live around a burned-out apartment building on River Street. When Parent first saw them in August, they had no obvious source of food or water. She believes they were left behind when their families fled the fire and then moved away.
"They started coming out from hiding, meowing," Parent said. "Oh my God, it was the saddest thing."
In both cases, the women said they made calls for help. To the local animal control officer. Animal shelters. Animal welfare and rescue groups. The police. The city. Lawmakers.
Many people didn't return their calls. Those who did said they couldn't help.
The women started dishing out food and water for the cats, taking care of their most immediate needs. As they spend money they don't have on food for cats that aren't theirs, they continue trying to get someone to listen to them before winter arrives. And with each call they grow more frustrated.
In a state with too many cats, too little spaying and neutering, and a common belief that cats are not really part of the family like dogs are, there isn't a lot of help.
"No one seems to know anything or want to do anything," Parent said. "It's ridiculous."
Not enough help
Maine doesn't have a dog overpopulation problem. Leash laws and licensing requirements have kept dogs close to home. And for those that do roam, spaying and neutering have prevented unwanted litters. It's unusual to find puppies in Maine animal shelters.
But they always have kittens.
There is no leash law or licensing requirement for cats, and many owners routinely let them out loose. Spaying and neutering is not as common for cats as it is for dogs, leading to unwanted litters at home and generations of feral cats in the community. And with the poor economy, more cats have been abandoned, left to fend for themselves after their owners moved or decided they couldn't afford them anymore.
"People value their dogs and they get them spayed and they get them neutered, and if they don't want them, they bring them to the shelter," said Sharon Secovich, an animal advocate who helped start Friends of Feral Felines and Spay ME, and is a member of the state's Animal Welfare Advisory Council.
"They don't, by and large, just let them go," she said. "Dogs have more value. I don't know how we raise the value of cats, except to make them scarcer and to spay/neuter them."
No one tracks the number of owned, stray or feral cats in Maine. Using national household statistics from the Humane Society of the United States, Norma Worley, director of the state's animal welfare program, estimated Mainers own more than 260,000 cats. She believes there may be two to three feral cats for every owned cat.
In 2008, the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society in Lewiston received 3,801 cats and kittens. More than 1,200 had to be euthanized because they were sick, most often with contagious upper respiratory infections resulting from improper care. Fewer than 50 were euthanized because the shelter didn't have the space for them.
Truscott, Jellison and Parent say their abandoned cats are friendly and basically healthy, but they're afraid the cats will grow fearful of humans and get sick if they remain on their own much longer. If that happens and the cats are eventually caught, the women are afraid they will be unadoptable — and euthanized.
Truscott and Jellison each noticed the Auburn cats on their way to work. The women didn't know each other before they started leaving food at the house. In Lewiston, Parent noticed the River Street cats when she was in the area.
The woman said they called Wendell Strout, the animal control officer for Lewiston and Auburn. They said their messages went unreturned, as did messages one or more of the women left for police, city leaders, lawmakers and the state's animal welfare program.
They called area animal shelters, including the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society. They were told they could bring in the cats if they caught them, but that the shelter could not go out and get them.
They called cat rescue groups. Those with private shelters apologetically said they were full. Those without private shelters suggested the women trap the cats and offered the names of other rescue groups that might be able to help.
Experts say that kind of passing of responsibility is common when it comes to stray cats. There are too many animals and not enough help.
"Cats don't have a lot of allies," Worley said.
Parent has spent nearly $40 a month feeding the cats in Lewiston. She's afraid she's not going to be able to afford it much longer. She'd like to get them into new homes or find their former owners, though she hasn't had any luck tracking them down so far. She's leery of trapping the cats and taking them to the animal shelter.
"I don't want to be the one to bring these beautiful animals to the shelter and have them put to death," she said.
Truscott and Jellison also are afraid their cats will be euthanized at the shelter, but they don't know what else to do. They believe the mother cat will keep having litters, with the kittens growing up unsocialized and turning feral.
"Pretty soon, there's going to be an explosion of cats," Truscott said.
A couple of weeks ago, Truscott and Jellison borrowed some humane Havahart traps and, with a friend of Jellison's, set them out. They captured seven cats the first day. They've caught two others since. They took all of them to the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society.
State law is vague and confusing about dealing with stray cats. One statute says towns must control animals that have caused a complaint. Another statute says animal control officers can seize stray cats, but it doesn't say they must. And although it's illegal to abandon cats in Maine, it can be hard for animal control officers to tell whether a cat's been abandoned or its owner simply let it outside. Since cats don't have to be on leashes and don't have to be licensed, they're free to roam.
"It's a hard situation because there's not a lot you can enforce with cats," said Cindy Dunton, the immediate past president of the Maine Animal Control Association.
Most animal control officers she knows will pick up stray cats and cats that have been obviously abandoned, she said. But other animal advocates say it's unusual for officers to deal with cats unless they're rabid or have been hit by a car.
Strout, the animal control officer for Lewiston, Auburn, Turner, Greene, Leeds and Wales, said his towns don't want him spending his time trapping stray cats.
"If we did that, that's all we would do," he said.
Strout said he received no phone messages about cats at Lewiston Junction Road. He said he learned about those cats last week from the sheriff's department and then began working to find contact information for the building owner so he could get permission to enter the house. As for the River Street area, he said he offered to lend Parent a humane trap, but she never picked it up.
Strout said he'd like to see animals off the street, too, but stray cats are generally not the responsibility of the animal control officer. He believes pet owners hold the power to control the cat population.
"People need to spay and neuter these animals," he said.
Last year, the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society started a low-cost cat spay and neuter program that's open to the public. So far this year, the shelter has received 10 percent fewer cats.
That doesn't help the cats that are strays now. Advocates say that unfortunately, that often leaves people like Truscott, Jellison and Parent to deal with them, without help.
"If this was a dog, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation," Worley said.