Gainesville is home to an organized network of feral cat feeders. It all started when two women accidentally crossed paths.
It was a bright afternoon in mid-2001, and Adele Franson was on a mission. Armed with a cat food can in one hand and a decanter of water in the other, she marched toward the Salvation Army on the corner of Northwest Second and Main Street. Her plan was to feed the feral cat colony that lived behind the store.
Feral cat colonies tend to be located in the invisible parts of town — deserted parking lots, abandoned restaurants, desolate roads. Just as you wouldn’t expect to stumble upon a colony midday downtown, you don’t anticipate crossing paths with the feeders: people in the community who are dedicated to providing feral cats with food, water and care. They operate quietly, behind the scenes.
Which is why when Franson, confronted with the sight of another woman walking, same as her, with one hand gripping a food can and the other holding a bottle of water, her first reaction was to ask, “What are you doing?”
The woman, Debbie Nichtberger, was on her way to the Salvation Army to feed the same colony. But rather than say this, she shot back, “What are you doing?”
It was the start of a 15-year-long friendship. And even more, it was a turning point for the feral cats of Gainesville.
There are 41,000 feral cats in Gainesville, according to local spay-and-neuter nonprofit Operation Catnip — a population that rivals the University of Florida’s student body.
But, so many cats cannot sustainably exist on their own. Without some kind of human intervention, they’d overrun the city, their unchecked growth resulting in disease and decreased bird populations.
To prevent this, animal lovers practice trap-neuter-return, in which feral cats are trapped, spayed and neutered — typically at a clinic — then returned to their colony. Feeders take it a step further, caring for the cats and providing the colonies with food and water so they don’t turn their hungry eyes to lizards or birds.
While it tends to be an independent job tackled on a cat-lover-by-cat-lover basis, the feral cat feeding game has grown more sophisticated over the past decade, with organized networks of feeders working together to strategically find and care for colonies.
Here in Gainesville, Franson and Nichtberger have organized one such network — a group of 10 consistent feeders.
Feeding feral cats and ensuring they’re spayed and neutered costs time and money — feeders attend to them twice a day, every day. They receive some help, in the form of free spaying and neutering, vaccines and supplies from Operation Catnip, but for the most part they must buy their own resources.
The group is organized remotely through a meticulous schedule Nichtberger emails to everyone at the beginning of each week. The feeders know they can count on one another to help house a sick or injured cat, as well as to cover shifts in the event that they do not have time to feed their colony that day.
“Even with rain and thunder, you have to wait ‘til it’s over, and then the cats are waiting for you with their little tails,” Trish Garibaldi, a fellow feral cat feeder, said. But “once you see the need, you get attached to the animals — that’s what keeps you going.”
Franson’s friendship with Nichtberger started off slowly, but the two stayed in contact, leaving each other notes outside of their shared colonies and occasionally collaborating to rescue a sick cat. Over time, they developed a strong bond.
“I just think we connected,” Franson said. “I’m a person, and she is, that’s interested in helping others … in our little world of feeding.”
Though Nichtberger’s first colony was the one she shared with Franson behind the Salvation Army, she’s always loved cats. She grew up with them — her family, she said, always had at least three at a time. When she moved to Gainesville in her early 20s, she naturally took in a small feral kitten.
“It had maggots in it,” she said, “and my husband was kind of a control freak.”
He told her to drown the cat and, when she refused, he forced her to.
“I think that’s why I am the way I am now,” Nichtberger said. “I have a lot of compassion for animals. I don’t know if you have any pets, but they’re just balls of love, and you just feel sorry for them.”
As she and Franson grew closer, they realized they knew many of the same people who were also feeding ferals. They began to consolidate their individual connections into a Rolodex of people they could rely on — a prototype of what the group would eventually become.
“I consider her my best friend,” Nichtberger said. “Because of the cat thing, we understand each other … She’s like the mom I never had, or like a sister. We’re just so alike.”
Then, Mrs. Kitty disappeared.
It was late 2003 when Mrs. Kitty, one of Franson’s house cats, jumped into the back of her car on her way to feed a colony. Then, somewhere along the way, she escaped.
Desperate to find her, Franson solicited the help of John Keane, a pet detective (alias: Sherlock Bones) based out of California. Though he advised her to print wanted posters (which soon covered her neighborhood), he urged her against offering a large reward. She settled on $3,000.
“To lose Mrs. Kitty had a lot of meaning — nothing else meant anything, in a way,” Franson said. “I would sell anything, not being foolish about it, but I would do anything to help the cats.”
Her work paid off, and Mrs. Kitty was found. Or rather, Mrs. Kitty found her, surprising her neighbor Mary Santello (another feral cat feeder) by poking her head out from between her azalea bushes.
Franson was already widely thought of as a good neighbor — someone who would bring in your trash cans or look after your cats while you’re away, Mary Ellen Delaplaine, Franson’s neighbor, said. Before Mrs. Kitty’s disappearance, Franson had cajoled many of her neighbors into accompanying her when she would go out to feed.
But it was her tenacity during the search that attracted even more feral cat feeders in the community to her. Like Garibaldi, who first met Franson as she was going door-to-door for Mrs. Kitty, many of them would go on to eventually comprise the group that exists today.
“She really went all out,” Garibaldi said. “Very few people go out of their way to find people, much less animals.”
Nichtberger and Franson are relentless in their pursuit of helping cats, Kate Boisseau, programs coordinator at Operation Catnip, said. Their doggedness has earned them both comparisons to Mother Theresa. And it’s an apt one, considering Nichtberger refers to herself as a “feral cat hospice.”
But it’s also earned them another name: cat ladies.
Nichtberger said she deals with this every day at her work, where repeat customers refer to her by the moniker.
“They’ll come in, and I’m like ‘Hey, Mitchell,’ and he’s like ‘Hey, cat lady,’” she said. “I’m like, ‘Mitchell, I’ve been waiting on you for 30 years, and you don’t know my name?’”
Franson, however, has a different perspective.
“Oftentimes, when people have said it to me, it’s because they’ve recognized me,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful that they’re aware, and I think it’s a way to bring recognition and awareness.”
Most days they’ll feed two colonies, Nichtberger said. On others, they might feed six.
“A lot of times, people just focus on the cats that are in their own yards,” Boisseau said. “But they go all over. They’ll hear about a cat, and they’ll go seek out that cat and help them out.”
Part of the reason she got involved, Garibaldi said, was to give Franson and Nichtberger a third person to rely on.
“You see the need there and then you get attached to the animals,” she said. “That’s what keeps you going. Then you can’t let [Franson and Nichtberger] down.”
On a Friday afternoon, Franson has three colonies to feed.
She pulls off an isolated road, bouncing onto a dirt patch and parking askew. She walks around to her trunk, where inside she keeps her feral cat feeding kit: a can of wet cat food, an opened bag of dry kibble and a decanter of water with a glass stopper. The food and water will go into three white ceramic bowls in the dining area Franson has set up for the colony in the shade of some fallen tree branches.
A woman wearing a Miami Hurricanes jersey bikes past, the wheels making a zippering noise in the puddles left behind by a recent storm.
She calls out to Franson, “Back at feeding the cats again?”
Franson said the woman is probably homeless.
“It’s their territory, too,” she said, referring to Gainesville’s homeless population, around whom ferals tend to congregate.
The appearance of a meowing ginger tabby cat diverts her attention. It’s time for Piglet, Momma and Blackie to be fed.
“Piggy-let-let-let-let,” she trills, tapping the spoon against the can. “Momma’s by. You hungry?”
Piglet agrees and darts down the road to nudge Momma, a skinny black and white cat, who stands, waiting, her tail at attention. Franson follows, hunched forward.
With no nonsense, she cleans out uneaten food from two of the ceramic bowls and refills them. Piglet jumps for the food as Momma stands back and watches Franson pour her water. Blackie, who is “very timid and shy,” Franson said, appears from behind a branch and approaches the food.
As the cats begin to eat, Franson coos at them, talking like one would to a baby.
Then she turns.
“On to to the next,” she says.
Neither science, nor the feeders, can explain what causes feral cats to form colonies — they just do.
According to nonprofit Alley Cat Allies, which advocates for trap-neuter-return, colonies tend to coalesce around food or other available resources, with the females and their young forming the core social bonds. They act like a family, each cat retaining its own personality.
“Cats are not unlike us,” she added. “They have the same anatomical sense. They have nerve endings. They feel pain. They grieve. They’re joyful.”
But “animals are seen as possessions,” Franson said. “So, as possessions, you can do as you want. You can throw them pizza, and that’s good enough for them to eat … It boils down to people not viewing these creatures with rights.”
In the long run, Franson’s goal is to work with other organizations — Operation Catnip and Alley Cat Allies among them — to help animals obtain legal rights.
“It takes a village to accomplish a lot of things,” she said. “We’re all trying to do our part.”