By J.D. Moor

Stayce Bushart chooses a spot to place a large trap to catch feral cats on Skyland Trail in the Drew Valley neighborhood.

Michael Schwartz has been a lightning rod on several issues during his 21 years as a Brookhaven resident. Most recently, the outspoken entrepreneur sparked debate about wild cats in his Drew Valley neighborhood, near Burch Circle.

Schwartz unintentionally stirred things up in July when he wrote on an online community forum that he’d never seen so many wild or feral cats darting around his property.

“I said, ‘I might just trap them and call the county.’ That’s what got the ire of some neighbors who protested that was like an automatic death sentence for the cats, who would be euthanized,” he said.

One neighbor’s replies got downright personal, he said, and a few others were quite passionate.

But, in fact, DeKalb County Animal Services partners with the Lifeline Animal Project and rescue groups in a program that traps, spays and neuters feral cats, and then releases them to their original stomping ground. Residents need only pay a $20 refundable deposit when requesting the service.

Schwartz’ online posts spurred Stayce Bushart to jump into the feline fracas and spearhead a round up of a separate, larger cat colony on Skyland Trail. She’s lived in Drew Valley since 1978. Like Schwartz, she doesn’t own cats, just dogs and a frog.

“If we feed these ferals, we have to get them spayed and neutered. If not, we will be overrun, and our property values will suffer,” she said.

Before realizing that the county could help humanely, Bushart rallied neighbor support and raised $220 online to pay for food, traps and the out-of-pocket costs of spaying and neutering.

“In July, we had around 18 cats in our colony. So far, we’ve trapped five kittens and two adults. Four of the kittens have been fixed and are being fostered. Two adults and one kitten have been released,” she said.

A previously feral kitten now named “Lady Koala” is fostered in a Brookhaven home, and awaits adoption.

Feral felines, abandoned domesticated cats, wild cats and outdoor cats that still belong to people often “camp out” wherever they find food and shelter. Some well-meaning people put food out for their own cats, which attracts the ferals as well.

Although the online community dialogue bred some argument over the best methods for dealing with the cats, posters agreed that the ferals can spread like kudzu. The National Pet Alliance estimates that over a 12-year period, one female with all her female offspring can be expected to produce over 3,200 kittens, if there is no human intervention.

The local debate over whether it’s best to release feral cats, even after they’re fixed, is a microcosm for what’s happening on the national scene as well. The animal rights organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, supports eradicating feral cats in certain circumstances.

“Our position has never been that all feral cats should be euthanized. We believe these programs are acceptable when the cats are isolated from roads, people, and other animals who could harm them; regularly attended to by people who not only feed them but care for their medical needs; and situated in an area where they do not have access to wildlife; and where the weather is temperate,” the PETA site reports.

However, a study commissioned by the Cat Fanciers’ Association argues that euthanasia should never be an option. “If eradication programs really worked, we wouldn’t be faced with so many stray cats and their offspring at shelters. Cats are territorial. They don’t allow other cats to steal their food. Altered cats will stand their ground, guard their food source, will not have kittens, and will die in a few years. Remove the cats from the habitat without changing the habitat, and another cat will move in.”

Bushart has spotted a brand new litter of five feral kittens on Skyland Trail. She said that makes a total of 12 cats or kittens to be trapped and neutered. So she has raised another $200, with neighbors pledging more to come.

But for Bushart, it’s not enough to herd cats and stem their overpopulation. Her latest campaign is also to find people willing to foster and/or adopt the feral kittens. “It’s almost impossible to domesticate a feral adult, but we have three kittens ready to be adopted. Most rescue groups are already maxed out, so it’s up to us to handle this,” she said.

Bushart, a part-time pre-school teacher, sees the feral cat project in Brookhaven as an example of good community collaboration. “It’s all about education, about how and whether to feed any outdoor cats, and the alternatives to euthanasia,” she said.

Shes does believe the feral cats serve a purpose. “They keep the population of mice, snakes, rats and moles in check,” she said.

But she wants the kittens adopted as in-house pets to minimize outdoor threats – to the cats and their prey. The National Audubon Society cites a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study finding cats — not just feral cats — kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds each year. Audubon has a program that encourages pet owners to keep their cats indoors for the safety of both their pets and birds.

Michael Schwartz rescued his dog on Buford Highway after he fell off the back of a truck eight years ago, but he has no plans to adopt a cat.

“I’m not a cat person, and I won’t be fostering or adopting any,” he said. He did learn from the inadvertent uproar he caused. “I learned how to spot a feral cat that has been fixed by noticing if its left ear has been clipped,” he said.