Are these cats wearing watches?
At 4:30 p.m. Monday, not a feral cat was stirring at Classy Nails & Day Spa. Not even a kitty behind the Plaza by the Mall units. No felines in the hammock behind Lakeshore Mall.
In the adjoining Sebring Hills neighborhood, one Crane Street resident had never seen roaming cats. However, Lori Fitzgerald lives on Loon Street.
"They crap here by my front door," she complained. "I don't want to call Animal Control, and I'm not allowed to have dogs because I just rent here, but I wish I had one chained up in the front and another in the back."
At 4:45, an orange tabby and a black brindle cat that obviously haven't observed modest diet and exercise regimes curled under a tree.
And 4:55, a blue Toyota RAV4 with "Miss You" plates rolled up. Maybe these cats can read, because 10, 12, maybe 14 sets of wary eyes peeked under the white wall that separates the circular mall drive and Sparrow Street. Joanne Giwojna and Hope Sidebottom coaxed with their voices and with bowls of water and cat food.
"They usually crowd around my legs," said Giwojna, an Avon Park resident who discovered this feral colony while searching for her own roaming cat. "We usually come later at night. There aren't any people around then. The parking lot is empty."
How many feral cats live in Highlands County?
"No one has ever measured it," said Dr. Elton Gissendanner, who operates a veterinary clinic north of Lake Placid. Humane Society Director Judy Spiegel has guessed tens of thousands. Gissendanner thinks 10,000 during kitten season, which starts every fall and spring.
"That's a real uneducated guess," the vet said. He had spayed or neutered 17 on Tuesday, and 557 in the six months since he opened the clinic.
In a Nov. 24 letter to county commissioners, Gissendanner suggested that people who feed feral cats should be required by law to have them fixed. The wholesale cost for antibiotics, worm medicine and a rabies shot is under $20.
He donates the labor. If all volunteers, even vets, would donate their labor, the feral cat problem in Highlands County could be solved, Gissendanner suggested.
Local veterinarians are lukewarm to the trap, neuter and release idea, Gissendanner said.
"Some will, some won't. My profession ridiculed it for a long time. But enough vets will go along with it if they see some hope."
Feral cats have a four- or five-year lifespan, Gissendanner believes. Tomcats are so prolific; they spread every possible disease in adjacent feral cat communities within two years. If 70 percent of producing females are fixed, he calculates in four years the feral population will be controlled.
A network of people feeds feral cats in Highlands County, Giwojna said. She and Sidebottom spend at least $25 to $30 a week on cat food.
What about the claims of bird lovers, that feral cats decimate the wildlife?
"I haven't seen any dead carcasses out here," Giwojna said.
"I used to have a pet grooming shop here," Sidebottom said. "Now it's out of business. But I started feeding them in 2008. I was able to get a lot of them spayed and neutered. I pay for that."
Sidebottom and Giwojna periodically examine their feline friends. They spray Neosporin on minor cuts, but sick or injured felines are taken to Susan Rankine at Heartland Cat Rescue & Adoption Society Inc., a not-for-profit founded in 2002. Rankine also fosters litters of kittens until they can be adopted.
Sidebottom and Giwojna agree that this is the way to control the feral cat population, not the feeding prohibition advocated by veterinarians.
"Let them starve to death? The public will not support that," Gissendanner predicted.
An ordinance proposed by Highlands County Animal Control and recommended to county commissioners by the Animal Control Committee takes Gissendanner's middle ground:
Sec. 4.5-4: Feeding of Feral Cats: "No person shall place or cause to be placed any food source or container meant to hold any food source for the purpose of feeding feral cats on any public property, public walks, recreation areas, or the private property of others unless otherwise authorized by the property owner."
What if the commissioners prohibit feeding feral cats instead?
"I can't sleep until they're fed," Sidebottom said.
"I guess I'll go get a ninja outfit and come out here at night," Giwojna said. She wasn't laughing.