KEY LARGO -- Self-described cat lovers throughout the island spend many hours and much money tending to what they describe as the forgotten feline.
Wayne Blevins, a longtime Key Largo resident, covers 15 miles every day on his bicycle to feed his many cat colonies. Each of his cats has a name, and with that its own personality.
"Come here, Spaz," Blevins said Friday while bending over to pet one. "All these cats that I feed are my friends. I love them all."
They haven't missed a meal in 14 years, he added.
Feral cats, which are domesticated cats and their progency that have returned to the wild, largely live in small colonies throughout the island and are fed by a devoted cadre of animal lovers.
Trying to help manage the population, Blevins is one of many who favor spaying and neutering the cats and returning them to the wild. But simply re-releasing the cats, he says, can be harmful or deadly to them, since they need a food source and safe to place to live.
"It's the people that are the problem, not the cats," he said.
Late last month, one of his colonies, which lived on the Winn-Dixie property at mile marker 105, was trapped and moved. Trying to hold back tears, Blevins described the action as "outright murder." The colony was one of his daily stops and the cats expected to see him with their dry kibbles, he said.
Days before the cats were removed, Blevins was issued a trespassing warning by the Monroe County Sheriff's Office to stay off the store's property.
For 11 years, Key Largo's Re Johnson says she has helped decrease the feral cat population by taking them to be spayed and neutered as well as keeping them fed. She cares for many colonies and knows exactly how many heads she will be counting.
"If I am missing a cat, I have a panic attack," she said.
Johnson, though, says she has reached her personal capacity and cannot take on more cats. She hopes more caretakers will step forward for the benefit of the cat colonies.
Salvation or carnage?
While Johnson, Blevins and others help ensure the survival of feral cats in the wild, others say their actions are a death sentence for native and migratory wildlife.
"Every year the warbler migrates thousands of miles down the migratory highway, then he stops in a neighborhood and there's a cat, and boom, it's dead," said Peter Frezza, a biologist with the Audubon Science Center in Tavernier. "Your cat just killed a phenomenal animal that feeds in your backyard."
Frezza described such events as "tragic." He said these birds are just stopping here to drink and feed during their migratory passage, and their lives are ended instantly by feral or free-roaming cats.
"Songbirds here in the Keys and throughout North America did not evolve with a small, agile, ambush-foraging feline predator such as felis silvestris, the domesticated cat," he said. "Therefore, they lack natural defenses from this type of predation and are highly susceptible to capture by our cats."
Injuries from cats that roam outside can be attributed to 223 of the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center's 1,000 intakes from 2013, according to Amanda Margraves, the hospital's manager.
Maintaining a 24-hour on-call status, Margraves says she and her staff take their passion for protecting birds seriously.
"We brought cats down here," she said. "It's not fair to the wildlife."
Margraves, a cat owner herself, keeps her pets in her apartment where they can't harm other animals.
To her, keeping cats indoors is the best solution for an animal lover.
Feral cat caretakers, though, aren't too quick to acknowledge damage perpetrated by feral cats. Both Blevins and Johnson said they have never seen any dead birds or evidence of cats killing other animals, adding that they keep their cats well-fed.
Frezza, however, points to a 2010 study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which addresses concerns of those who believe cats should be able to live freely and those who think they should be managed to protect wildlife.
"Proponents of feral cats ... suggest well-fed cats do not prey on wildlife," according to the study's authors. "Research shows that cats maintain their predatory instincts no matter how well fed they are."
The study contends that cats are responsible for the extinction of 33 species of birds worldwide.
Caught in a trap
In addition to songbirds, local wildlife officials have dubbed the feral cat as the main predator of the endangered Key Largo woodrat, which resides in Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park.
Refuge manager Jeremy Dixon says ridding the refuge of free-roaming cats is key to saving the vegetarian rodent, which helps to disperse seeds from local plants and trees and provides an important link in the native food chain.
So far, his tactics for re-establishing the population have been building woodrat nests and trapping cats in the refuge and taking them to the animal shelter, where, if no owner claims them, they are either adopted or euthanized.
Dixon says he has also placed traps on state land in Dagny Johnson.
"If we can catch a cat before it comes onto the refuge, it can be a benefit," he said.
These efforts have helped woodrat numbers increase recently, Dixon says.
This trapping program, though, has drawn the ire of not just Blevins and Johnson, but the exclusive Ocean Reef Club as well.
ORCAT, a trap-neuter-release organization in the North Key Largo community, which borders the refuge, cares for about 300 cats, according to David Ritz, who heads the community's association.
Of those cats, 200 of them roam freely throughout the property and are offered multiple feeding stations. Ritz says the program has proven to be a humane way over the years to reduce the population of feral cats in the community.
When an Ocean Reef cat was caught in one of Dixon's traps, outrage ensued inside the wealthy enclave, said Ritz, who accused Dixon of strategically placing the traps at the edge of the community.
Ritz denies that feral cats are preying on native fauna inside the refuge. Instead, he claims Dixon is capturing cats along the refuge's perimeter in an effort to back up his theory that cats are to blame for woodrat decline.
Ritz points to a 2010 effort on Palo Alto Key, an island north of Key Largo, where 15 woodrats were released into the wild. That effort proved unsuccessful as the endangered animals were almost immediately eaten by natural predators. Thus, Ritz concludes, cats are not the problem.
"The cats are not in there killing woodrats," Ritz said. He also said he has never witnessed an Ocean Reef cat preying on birds.
Dixon, who dismisses such claims, has implemented a small fine for residents whose cats come onto the refuge, though Ocean Reef members are not subject to the fine, because it wouldn't be financially punitive to them.
"Fining them wouldn't make sense," Dixon said.
Instead, when a specially tagged Ocean Reef cat is caught, it is driven back to the gated community.
The only Key Largo resident to be fined, so far, is well-known dive boat captain Spencer Slate, whose home that harbors nine cats is just south of Dagny Johnson state park.
"The primary reason that the refuge has not fined Ocean Reef is that they made the conscience decision to discuss the issue directly with refuge staff and offered a resolution, one that they have so far honored," Dixon said in an email. "Mr. Slate had this same opportunity and chose not to engage the matter directly."
Slate did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.
Moving forward, Blevins fears more feral cat colonies will be in jeopardy from trapping programs.
Both Frezza and Margraves were relatively tight-lipped about offering solutions due to potential fallout from the emotionally-charged issue.
Not an organization to shy away from controversy, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says euthanasia, not trap-neuter-release, is the most humane course of action for feral cats.
"We consider programs like these to be trap, neuter and re-abandon," said PETA Animal Control Care Specialist Teresa Shagrin, who is based out of Norfolk. Va.
Caretaking involves much more than feeding cats, according to PETA. It requires providing them with regular veterinary care, isolating them from roads, people and animals that could harm them, and keeping them away from areas where they have access to wildlife.
"This is much better than leaving the animals to die on their own," Shagrin said, as feral cats often succumb to a variety of painful and deadly diseases.
Dixon and Ritz also disagree on that issue. While the refuge manager says feral cats can carry rabies, toxoplasmosis, hookworm and other diseases, Ritz says that's simply not happening.
"Just ask the shelters and they'll tell you," Ritz said.
Marsha Garrettson, who heads the Upper Keys Animal Shelter, where feral cats from the refuge are brought, said she sees a variety of diseases in feral cats, including mange and intestinal parasites.
Cats with broken limbs and sometimes no limbs are dropped off at the open admission shelter.
As for how to best deal with the feral cat situation?
"If someone had a solution, we would have solved the problem by now," she said.