Laura Winholt

Daufuskie's Own Cat Lady

  As long as anyone on Daufuskie Island can remember, there have always been cats. Lots of cats.feral and filthy, diseased and discarded, roaming the woods and haunting the dumpsters in search of their next meal. Local methods of animal control were about as down and dirty as you'd expect on this traditionally renegade island, until the arrival of one woman who proved to be as tough as the locals and scrappy as the cats themselves.

"I'm a cat lover, so I find it sad and disheartening," said Laura Winholt, who remembers the first time she saw feral cats rummaging through some garbage at Haig Point. "They were very thin, filthy, covered in ticks and fleas, begging for scraps and struggling to survive."

Upon inquiry, she discovered that island residents' manner of dealing with the problem was to never feed strays, that way weakened mothers would have smaller litters and be too malnourished to nurse their young. Nevertheless, the cats always survived.

"There would be years when the population exploded and people would cull the cats like they do deer," said Laura, who admits to feeling nauseated when she learned all this. "But they could never shoot all of them, and it only takes two to build up their numbers all over again. I thought, this scene has got to change."

She trapped her first abandoned cat, a near-dead calico lying by the side of the road, by throwing her sweater over it and carrying it home in her golf cart. After taking it to the Hilton Head Humane Association to get fixed, she adopted the creature, and it lives with her today. Little did she know that this was to be the first of 169 cats she would eventually trap, cart over to the mainland, and place in the expert hands of the Humane Association.

Terminally diseased cats are euthanized, but the majority are vaccinated, spayed or neutered and either adopted out or re-released on Daufuskie, where they self-organize into feral cat "colonies." These groups of healthy, non-reproducing animals, which range in size from three to 32, are fed and monitored by Laura and a team of 34 dedicated volunteers who have built shelters and feeding stations around the island. In the three years the program has been running, they have brought about a 30 percent decrease in the number of feral cats, a slow decline that can only continue as the now 100 percent sterile population phases itself out. Laura also reports a 98 percent reduction in nuisance behaviors such as nighttime fighting, yowling and trash upsetting that once irked island residents. And whosoever dares bring a sexually viable cat to the island had better know that their actions won't go unnoticed-no feline newcomers escape Laura's watchful eye!

Still, not everyone is happy that she's taken the cats under her wing. "People have strong opinions," said Laura, who acknowledges that in a perfect world, there would be no feral cats destroying birds and other wildlife. But in reality, she has no time for people who would rather complain than be part of a solution-she's too busy observing Blackheart, Fudge-nut and Snowball (named by their markings to be easily identifiable to all volunteers) through a pair of binoculars she keeps in the golf cart when making her feeding rounds.

"I've never really been swept away by something like this before," said Laura, whose ultimate goal is total elimination of feral cats on Daufuskie. "I feel proud of what I've done, but the feeling is more than is plain happiness or joy. I think that when you follow your heart, your heart responds by singing with joy."