Tampa Bay Times reporter Justin Trombly found an unexpected friend one night as he was coming home from a long day on the night shift at work.
As he walked up the stairs to his Gulfport apartment, he saw a cat near the entrance. He had always been more of a dog person, but this was a friendly cat, one that instantly rubbed up against him and purred loudly.
A bond was forged. For nearly a month, Trombly would come home from work and find the cat there waiting for him. Sometimes the cat, who he had nicknamed Jul, would sleep in his apartment or lay on the table outside of his place, waiting for him in the morning. Although Jul wore a collar, Trombly never knew if the cat had an owner.
One day in July, Jul didn’t show up at the usual spot. Trombly didn’t think much of it at first, but it was clear something had changed when weeks went by and he didn’t see Jul.
Sometimes he would walk up his apartment steps and look expectantly, as if Jul would finally be there that night. Once, Trombly spotted an orange cat on the street and he stopped his car to say hello. But it wasn’t Jul.
Eventually, Trombly moved out and he never saw the cat again. He was left with the memory of the Gulfport neighborhood cat that had been a first friend to him in a new city and a new state.
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Pinellas County actually accounts in law for these cats who have no home and yet are not technically strays. County ordinance has a name for them: “community cats.” So long as community cats are sterilized, vaccinated for rabies and identifiable through a clipped ear or tattoo, they are allowed to exist as they are.
The ordinance is part of a nationwide effort to control stray and feral cat populations through a process of trapping, spaying or neutering, vaccinating and returning them to their environment, said Pinellas County animal services director Doug Brightwell.
The program began as a test about six years ago, Brightwell said, through conversations with local nonprofit Meow Now!, a group that offers treatment services for community cats in the area. At the time, county officials put the feral cat population at up to about 170,000.
About three years later, as the pilot program came to a close, Brightwell said, the nonprofit was taking in about 1,000 community cats a year for treatment.
In those three years, Brightwell saw fewer cat-related public nuisance complaints and he has seen fewer adult stray cats taken in to Animal Services each year. But he’s still waiting for an overall drop in the number of new stray kittens born each year.
Community cats are one way to reduce the number of new cats coming into an area without potentially taking them to Animal Services and euthanizing them, a solution that experts say is not always effective. When a colony of cats is removed from an area by Animal Services, there can be a “vacuum effect,” Brightwell said, where a new group of cats will make their home there once the old cats are out.
Other nearby counties are now following Pinellas’ lead. In 2018, Hernando County approved an ordinance allowing residents to trap, spay, neuter, vaccinate and return feral cats, ideally leading to fewer cats being euthanized.
But trapping a feral cat is not an easy task. Brightwell recognizes that, noting that the ordinance only requires one rabies vaccination per cat to qualify, although cats are generally supposed to receive multiple vaccinations over the course of their lives.
St. Petersburg resident Tyler Killette had this experience when she tried to trap Mr. Limpy, a feral cat that spent time outside of her apartment building. The orange cat got his name from his gait, a nearly three-legged hobble, as one of his front legs was attached to his body only “by a couple of tendons,” Killette said.
“It was devastating,” she said. “I couldn’t believe he was even alive.”
Killette wanted to take Mr. Limpy to the vet, but he would never let her get close enough. Finally, she was able to get a trap from a local rescuer and, after tempting him with tuna, Mr. Limpy acquiesced.
Once Mr. Limpy got to the vet, he was neutered and had his leg amputated. He now sports the ear-clip typical of cats who have received this treatment.
“He gets around just fine on three legs these days, and is fat and happy,” Killette said.
Other neighborhood cats have owners but manage to make new friends on their outdoor adventures. Niki Plutis’ cat, Sydney, is informally referred to as the “Mayor of Dunedin,” Plutis said.
Plutis’ house borders the Pinellas Trail and Sydney likes to prowl, sometimes getting in the way of bicyclists.
“There’s a lot of road bikes that come flying by, and she’ll just kind of hang out on the bike lane,” Plutis said. “She’s like, ‘Eh, whatever.’ The bikers have to sort of swerve around her. Elite cyclists aren’t too thrilled with that. But she just has her little area and she goes up to people.”
Sydney is so well-known on the trail that Plutis has a hashtag for her cat: #trailcat. Sydney doesn’t just like to follow bikers, she also likes to relax at a nearby tiki bar that backs up to the trail. Sometimes she’ll even sit on top of a stool, as if she is one with the bar-goers.
On some rare occasions, neighborhood cats actually step in and save the domesticated pet cat. At least that’s what happened to my editor, Chris Tisch.
About three years ago, his house cat, Buddy, who was old and blind, somehow escaped from Tisch’s wooden-fenced backyard. His family searched for him for days, but couldn’t find him.
But Buddy had a friend. Most days, the neighborhood stray cat, Sammy, would come to Tisch’s backyard expecting to be fed. He always would let Buddy eat first, then clean up the leftovers.
His general pattern was to come and leave from the west side of the house. But on the sixth day of Buddy’s disappearance, Sammy left from the other direction. So Tisch followed him.
After walking with Sammy past three houses, the cat stopped at a vacant house, looked up at Tisch and dashed into the bushes. When Tisch wandered to the side of the house, Buddy was in the backyard.
“Had this stray cat--which seemed to have formed a bond with Bud--led me to him?” Tisch said. “I’d like to think he did.”
Buddy died a few months ago. Sammy still shows up in the back yard -- just not as often.
Those gaps in Sammy’s visits always make him wonder whether Sammy’s still alive -- or whether he has succumbed to the perils of being a stray cat.
But still from time to time, there Sammy will be, by the door, looking for food.