PORT ALBERNI — Silent and still, a pair of feline eyes peer out from under a thorn bush at the edge of a large wooded area on Argyle Way in Port Alberni.
Plastic dishes of water and food are left by the bushes, but the cat appears wary of a person upon approach.
This is a common sight in the neighbourhood, where one of the city’s many groups of wild cats lurk in the shadows, keenly awaiting a chance at an easy meal that might arise.
In appearance, these felines look just like domestic cats, except they often hiss or growl as a person comes close, rejecting a gentle stroke of the fur.
The animals are feral cats, breeds of domesticated felines born outside a home that grow up wild without human contact.
Feral cats usually live in groups with as many as two dozen animals depending on a single source of food. The spread of the colonies has created serious problems for many Alberni Valley residents.
“We do have a large feral cat problem in Port Alberni. It’s been ongoing for a long time,” said Irene Towell, manager of the Alberni-Clayoquot branch of the SPCA, which handles animal control in the area.
“There are probably more feral and free-roaming cats in the city than there are owned cats.”
The prevalence of cats in Port Alberni was brought up by city councillors during the SPCA’s presentation of its 2014 budget on Jan. 6 in city hall.
Only dog owners are required to license their pets in the city, but Coun. Wendy Kerr suggested changes to bylaws to discourage cat lovers who are adding the overpopulation problem by fostering too many of the animals.
“A lot of people seem to have a large number of cats,” she said. “Maybe that’s one thing to look at, licensing them, and maybe that will make people think twice about getting another cat. They are a huge cost on our system.”
Cats comprised 455 of the 1,056 animals taken in by the local SPCA last year. Space limitations forced the animal shelter to move 214 of the unwanted felines to other SPCA branches — more than twice the number of dogs relocated in 2013.
The animals taken in by the SPCA were deemed to be adoptable, which doesn’t usually include feral cats. Towell said in some cases the SPCA is forced to put the animals down if they are a big enough problem for residents.
A possible solution to Port Alberni’s cat overpopulation problems emerged last July with the awarding of a $110,000 grant from PetSmart Charities Canada to fund a spaying and neutering program.
Towell said sterilization can serve as an alternative to euthanizing feral cats.