Founding a nonprofit organization for feral cats was not something Kelly Bettinger had on her to-do list. Allergic to cats, busy with fieldwork and research and new to Athens, she wanted nothing to do with running another program.
A wildlife biologist who had just moved to Athens, Bettinger joined the University of Georgia staff listserv to keep up with campus news. The first email she received was from a colleague about a kitten caught at the Main Library who needed a new home. In her previous work with feral cats at Oregon State University, Bettinger knew that this meant there were more cats in the area. She stalked the library, found the rest of the litter and its mother, trapped them and took them to a veterinarian clinic where they were spayed and neutered, given their shots and fed. After putting up the kittens for adoption, she returned the mother to campus and set up a feeding station.
“I thought I could handle one little feeding station,” Bettinger said. “But when I explained where the kittens came from, I started getting emails from other people on campus saying, ‘Hey, I’m feeding cats at this building, can you help me?’ Just from all over campus, there were people feeding cats.”
Bettinger knew then that she had to do something about the problem. A strong advocate for trap-neuter-return (TNR) – a program through which feral and stray cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated and returned to the wild – she set up a feeding station at the library and loaned out traps to colleagues.
Within a year, Bettinger had a network of volunteers and a nonprofit organization to coordinate. The Cat Zip Alliance was born from one little feeding station in 2006. Today, it can claim 25 feeding stations on campus, more than 120 adoptions and at least 40 cats under its care.
But her success hasn’t come without struggles. “TNR is controversial. There are some people who believe no cat – whether stray, tamed, feral or otherwise – should be outdoors because they might kill some wild animal. There’s zero tolerance. That’s great, and I agree too, but it’s just not realistic,” Bettinger said.
In 2010, TNR supporters and opponents packed the downtown court house as the Athens-Clarke Commission voted to approve of the method as a way to control the feral cat population. “The opponents tried to get us stopped. We’ve even had threats to poison our cats from some of these people,” she said.
“All they want is to trap and kill, and that’s not going to work. This leaves behinds kittens that die, and it leaves behind cats too smart for the traps.”
Since then, the group has been keeping a low profile. “Our sites are very well hidden on campus, and we haven’t had any problems since,” Bettinger said.
Justine Chien, a doctoral candidate at UGA, is one of the Alliance’s volunteers who came across the organization in almost the same way Bettinger had founded it. In 2008, Chien found two kittens and their mom around a dumpster in Family and Graduate Housing and began feeding them while trying to find a cat rescue organization. “I finally met Kelly at the farmer’s market where she was selling cat toys and had brochures for neutering and spaying cats,” Chien said.
She told Bettinger about the cats she was feeding, and Bettinger offered to help her trap them. After taking them to the vet, Chien adopted one of the kittens. The next year, she found another kitten and fostered it. “But he was around for so long that I adopted him,” Chien said with a laugh. “That’s usually the result of fostering, so he’s my third cat.”
DeAnna Palmer, a secretary at UGA’s College of Education, was one of those who emailed Bettinger about seeing cats around campus. She also adopted two cats from the Alliance and is an active volunteer. “I’ve been feeding cats on campus for over 25 years and spaying and neutering as I could afford it,” Palmer said.
“After Kelly came along and created the non-profit, we have a fund for paying for the procedures and even feeding the cats. We could not have accomplished what has been done for the animals – feeding them and diminishing the problem – without Kelly and the Cat Zip Alliance.”
To Bettinger, this is all she has ever wanted for the organization. “Our biggest accomplishment has been getting campus under control. We know where the cats are on campus, and there are only a few new cats coming in each year. It’s a sense of relief,” she said.
“My dream would be that we wouldn’t be needed anymore, but campus isn’t somebody’s home. It needs an organization to take care of it, and that’s us.”