When you visit Jim Helms at the Boys & Girls Club of Cabarrus County, you can easily see that he loves children and cats.
For decades, teenagers have spent many weekend evenings lounging at the Boys & Girls Club under Jim's careful supervision. It's a safe haven in a dangerous world.
For about the same span of time, neighborhood cats have also found a refuge with Jim. He spends a lot of money every week to buy enough food for homeless kitties. Many are regulars at his dinner table.
Kittens are often dumped at the Boys & Girls Club, as well as a few puppies left on the doorstep in hopes that children can take home a pet. Often the frightened kittens run into bushes and hear a kind word only when Jim comes out after dark to fill big trays with food for them.
In the rental properties nearby, many residents have moved on and left pets behind to fend for themselves. About five years ago, one woman abandoned more than a dozen cats when she moved.
Cats are resourceful, and they often live on snakes and mice and other pests in the neighborhood. Jim and a few other folks keep them healthy with a daily square meal.
But there's a problem: Cats reproduce at alarming rates. A well-fed female can produce 20 or more kittens each year. And at 6 months old, those kittens start having their own families.
When Jim surveys the grassy field behind the club on Spring Street in Concord, he sees a lot of suspicious little eyes watching for danger, watching for attacks from predators, and watching to be sure Jim will bring them a little something to eat before the chilly autumn night sends them to seek shelter.
During the summer, a team of volunteers from Kitty City, our downtown Concord animal rescue and humane education center, worked to trap and move many of the kittens and to spay adult females. The population of fertile cats in Cabarrus County has reached crisis proportions; hundreds of cats now lurk behind the Boys & Girls Club, the rental houses and nearby businesses, where a little Dumpster diving can yield lunch.
The overpopulation of cats is heartbreaking for Jim and for concerned neighbors who befriend the creatures. When they find furry bodies that have been killed by cars in the street and parking lots, or wounded cats that have been attacked by roaming toms, often it's like losing a friend who has visited their kitty soup kitchens for months. Jim can describe each cat's personality, how long it has been visiting his place, and often which mother cat gave birth to it.
"I had one who was spayed the first time Kitty City had a clinic here, back in 2007," Jim said. "She had got really friendly, would let me rub her head a little bit. I found her run over in the parking lot during the summer."
Visitors to Jim's office are familiar with one of those cats, who became his personal pet. She's a contented tabby, curled asleep in his desk chair, with one cropped ear to signify that the veterinarians stopped her family tree at the spay-neuter clinic.
Kitty City, a project of Cabarrus CARES, plans to alter a lot more of the neighborhood cats this fall. Beginning this month, the volunteer organization will partner with the Boys & Girls Club to trap, spay-neuter and move dozens of stray cats. The effort is called TNR ("Trap-neuter-release"), and it is the only way to effectively lower the numbers of strays. Fully vaccinated and altered cats will be free to new homes.
"They make great mousers," said Jimmie Hoffman, one of the TNR team members at Kitty City. "Any warehouse or barn could just feed them, and they'll prevent a lot of rodent damage."
The cats offered to good homes in the TNR project often won't make tame lap cats, but once they've been spayed or neutered and vaccinated, they don't require much. They'll return a lot by keeping away snakes and even other cats.
"Once they're altered," Hoffman said, "they don't roam, and they won't let other cats share their territory."
Why don't they just destroy the cats?
"They are a valuable asset in keeping the environment in balance," said Natalie Barbee, operations manager of Cabarrus CARES. "When they banned cats in Europe in the Dark Ages, rats moved in to fill the void, and the result was bubonic plague from their fleas.
"The same thing happened a few years ago in Arizona, when the prairie mice transmitted hantavirus. Without these guys, you will see a surge in neighborhood rats."
Hoffman said, "There's no reason to kill them, but we have to control the numbers."
The trapping teams are already developing strategies and identifying targets. Soon many of the pairs of eyes blinking slowly in the evening lights will watch from new homes.
It won't be solved overnight, but eventually the numbers of unwanted cats and kittens will decline.
Jim Helms will still love cats and children. But will can sleep better at night knowing that his friends are safe.