SUNSHINE SKYWAY SOUTH FISHING PIER — Colby climbed across the tall grass and nestled into her usual evening spot at the top of the hill, in front of an Australian pine tree. Water splashed against the rocks 20 feet below as the sky turned pink and the sun set over Tampa Bay, the remaining light reflected from the white whiskers on her calico face. She watched Panda, a black-and-white tuxedo cat, prowling down by the water.
Frost, a tabby with orange-and-brown patches, had her tongue stuck out while climbing on the rocks under the base of the Skyway south fishing pier. This is life for the cat colony now, about a decade after Gregg Schroeder found them.
Schroeder was driving southbound in his 40-foot tanker truck and had just crossed Tampa Bay with the lights of the Skyway glowing behind him. He saw faces — cats, he realized — as they walked along the guardrail. “You could see them down there in the dark.”
So he stopped.
That was how Schroeder, 56, first discovered the Skyway cats. “They were starving with no water and no one around,” he said. “There were probably 40 cats.”
He had to do something for them, he thought. He stopped at Tractor Supply in Sarasota. “I bought bowls and brought water. And then I never left.”
The Skyway cats
Today there are about 20 stray cats living at the base of the Skyway south fishing pier, according to Kim Caswell, the president of the nonprofit Skyway Cats Inc. “They’ve got a beautiful view,” Caswell, 62, said.
For about 10 years, a group of volunteers from both sides of the bridge has looked after the cat colony.
The cats are trapped, neutered or spayed and vaccinated. The tip of the left ear is cut off to indicate that they have been cared for — it’s the universal symbol of an outdoor cat that has been fixed. The group has worked to get the most domesticated and friendly cats adopted and into loving homes, Caswell said.
The remaining cats aren’t sociable with humans, so they live outdoors. Caswell, a retired Verizon executive who lives in St. Pete Beach, started caring for community cats in 2018.
“I love animals, particularly cats,” Caswell said. “I saw there was a problem with the cat populations and cats suffering.” She connected with a small group caring for the Skyway cats in 2020 after she helped with a bird rescue at the south fishing pier and noticed a cat there.
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In addition to helping with the Skyway colony, she manages colonies in St. Pete Beach and St. Petersburg. “I feel like it’s a need and it’s overwhelming. Any kind of animal rescue is overwhelming,” Caswell said. She and her family have seven rescue cats at home, and the most recent addition is a tabby rescued from the Skyway. “It’s very depressing at times. Somebody’s got to do it and why not me,” Caswell said.
Katie Cagno, 16, is one of the volunteers. She can’t wait to see their little faces, hear their happy sounds, watch their graceful movements. Katie remembers when she first got involved with caring for the cats. “I’d finish my schoolwork, we’d pick up my brother and then go straight to see the cats,” Katie said. She manages a cat document that is shared between all the volunteers and helps catalog the animals. It includes a family tree, a picture and description of each cat. It also includes their names, many given by Katie. “They all have such sweet personalities and are all very different,” she said.
“Eight dollars,” Debbie Steele says to a customer as she puts the cash in the register at the Skyway south fishing pier. In addition to sun, water and people fishing, the view from her toll booth often also includes glimpses of furry feline friends. She calls them her babies.
“I have a couple of them that lay under my car to keep cool,” said Steele, 57, from St. Petersburg. “They’ve got the water and they have me.”
Steele has been working as a toll booth operator for a little over a year. “I go out there a lot,” she said. “Especially first thing in the morning. When they see my car, they come out running — they know they are gonna get their treats.”
The Skyway cats are very well taken care of, Steele said. She recalls when a cat named Rusty had a hook in his mouth and the Skyway Cats caretakers came out and got the cat to the vet. “They are very good with these cats, and for that I’m grateful,” Steele said.
Sharing the work
Volunteers each care for the cats one day a week. Katie and her mom make the 30- to 40-minute drive from East Bradenton to care for the cats on Thursdays.
“I went to the fishing pier to clean up trash — that’s how I found the cats,” Katie said. “Then a year later I found the Skyway Cats and decided to volunteer with them.”
Katie has two rescue cats at home — she giggles as she refers to them as “foster fails.” Her love of cats keeps her going back.
“It just feels good to be helping out,” she said. “Especially the cats at the Skyway, they need constant maintenance. It just feels like I’m doing something good for an animal I really love and care about.”
When Schroeder discovered the Skyway cat colony, it was a mess. “It was all overgrown and they were really in rough shape,” he said. “Nothing like it is today.” His cat days are Tuesday and Friday. “Now they get the best food and fresh water. I spray for bugs and put sodium bicarbonate down to neutralize the pee smell. We cut the grass.
“Me and my wife — we fell in love with cats,” Schroeder said. The Tarpon Springs couple were traveling in a motor home when a friend gave them a kitten. “Boom, it was all over. We then started helping out cats. All our cats are rescues.”
The Skyway colony is stable and new cats cannot be introduced. The existing cats are territorial and will chase any new cats away and they will likely be killed on the nearby highway, Caswell said. “We don’t want people thinking this is a place to dump your cat and they will be cared for,” she said. “We are not a cat rescue. We take care of the community cats. We don’t take cats from the public.”
“Hopefully there’s an end game,” Schroeder said. “Hopefully we won’t see any more out there after they live their lives out. That’s the goal.”
Schroeder arrived at noon on a recent Friday. The cats rushed over. He fed them and cleaned the area. It’s a much different scene than that first sighting at sunrise years ago.
“There’s always a breeze and there are really no predators out there,” Schroeder said, looking out to the rocks and the water and the Skyway cats. “And that’s a million-dollar view.”
How to help
Contact Skyway Cats at skywaycats.com/how-to-help to learn more.