FORT KENT, Maine — There’s a population explosion in Fort Kent and a group of concerned citizens is banding together to do something about it.

According to members of the St. John Valley PAWS Animal Welfare Society’s board of directors, feral and stray cats are becoming an increasing problem in town.

“We are overwhelmed with the number of homeless and stray cats,” said Priscilla Daigle, PAWS president. “We are looking for homes willing to adopt some of these animals.”

Daigle and her fellow animal-loving board members all have horror stories to share about neglected felines in the area.

“There are people who just don’t take care of their pets,” Daigle said. “I had someone call me recently about the large number of cats around his home.”

It turned out, Daigle said, that the large number was a direct result of the caller’s allowing his own cats to breed indiscriminately.

“When I asked him why he didn’t get them fixed he said, ‘We like the little kittens the best,”” Daigle said. “This is what we are up against.”

Members of the group who trap the feral and stray cats said there is a big difference between the two.

“A feral cat is a cat that is not at all comfortable around humans and is terrified of them,” Jean Cobb of St. Agatha, said. “A stray is someone’s pet who may just be lost.”

While the group looks to reunite lost cats with their owners, they are taking more drastic steps with the colonies of feral cats around town.

“We are involved in the trap, neuter and release program,” Cobb said.

Members trap the cats, arrange for a licensed veterinarian to spay or neuter them, vaccinate them and then release them back into their colonies.

“Killing the cats is not only inhumane, it does not work,” Cobb said. “When you kill off a colony, another one just moves in. This way the colony stays intact, but can’t produce more cats.

According to Cobb, one pair of breeding cats and their offspring are capable of producing close to 20,000 cats over five generations.

In addition to coping with the exploding cat population at the street level, Daigle said the group is also looking down the road to build a green, no-kill shelter.

“We are raising money as best we can for this,” she said. “We also hope there might be someone who would donate a small piece of land or building for us to use.”

Among those fundraisers is an upcoming dog and car wash at Fort Kent Animal Hospital on Saturday, Sept. 6.

For a donation, owners can have their dog washed, ears cleaned, nails trimmed, get their car washed and munch on hamburgers or hotdogs.

“We are also introducing an education component into the schools,” Daigle said. “We really should be able to get local and volunteer help for a lot of this.”

The group is currently pushing a new Maine specialty license plate, sales of which help fund the Help Fix Me Program, offering low cost spay and neuter clinics.

While Daigle is pleased with the group’s process, she admits things are not moving as quickly as they would like.

“It’s a slow go,” she said. “Maine needs to make tougher laws to protect felines (and) even those laws are not enforced.”

Daigle was also quick to add that the group is not “ignoring dogs.” For the time being, she said, the concentration is on the more serious feral cat situation.

But she is confident her 10-member board is up to the challenge.

“This is a fearless bunch,” she said as two pug dogs wound around her legs and a rescued, small black kitten napped in a board member’s arms. “They are putting their hearts, souls and spirits into it.”

For more information on the local PAWS group, contact Priscilla Daigle or Darlene Martin at the University of Maine at Fort Kent at 834-7500, Lisa O’Malley at 834-5605, or Cheryl Kelly at 398-3249.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.