Each week, Waterford senior citizen Neva Walker works part-time to earn money to buy $200 per week to buy food for cats that aren't hers.
Love of cats is what drives Walker, 70, to make the daily trip to Fox Grove Fishing Access northeast of Hughson to care for a colony of feral cats. For the past 10 years Walker has tended to the cats at the river location but is troubled that the problem is worsening. Many of the cats are dying from distemper or neglect.
The dumping of unwanted family pets in rural areas has been an age old problem. But it's a growing phenomenon at Fox Grove and she's becoming alarmed and feeling overwhelmed.
"It's happening daily," said Walker. "Last year not a day went by that I didn't have at least one, possibly two or three cats abandoned. I try to keep them all fixed. This is a lot of work for one person to be responsible for this many cats."
When Alley Cat Guardians closed its operations, Walker reported that it hurt her efforts.
"I was constantly was putting my cats that were dumped down there through them and getting them fixed for $25 apiece. Well when they went out of business, now if I'm lucky I might get them done for $40. I give the shots myself to the tame ones. The biggest part of them down there are tame cats, they're house pets. There are wild ones."
She estimates that 80 percent of the feral cats at the location are fixed. They are identified as having notched ears. She likes to concentrate on spaying female cats but said she can't keep up fast enough to prevent cat reproduction on the site.
Four spays cost her $174 on Wednesday last week.
She also tries to give medical care to the cats, if she can, like eye drops or administering antibiotics.
"I have five or six cats down there that are over 10 years old," said Walker. "I care for them good. Everybody says I'm nuts. I feed them like a pet but most of them were pets."
Walker understands that people may feel an animal has better chances of survival in the wild versus not being destroyed at the animal shelter if it fails to be adopted. But she said domesticated cats are poor at fending for themselves.
She recently found a dumped house cat that was sick and in need of veterinary care.
"I would give anything if there was never an animal killed. I mean, that would be a perfect world for me that every animal was cared for and none were killed. But that isn't the way it is and it is better that they go humanely than to suffer and die. Like that little cat died all by himself with his family not there and he's also taken 45 cats with him because they didn't want to take him to the pound and put him down. It's really sad."
Walker posted a sign warning visitors that there is distemper in the area - it can remain in contaminated areas for 10 to 20 years - in an effort to ward off cat dumping but it hasn't seemed to curb the problem.
"They're dying every day," said Walker. "All the ones that I didn't fix and give shots to."
Feline Panleukopenia virus (FPV), also commonly referred to as feline distemper, is a highly contagious and life-threatening viral disease in cats. This virus affects the rapidly dividing blood cells in the body, primarily the cells in the intestinal tract, bone marrow, and in the stem cells of the developing fetus. Because the blood cells are under attack, the virus can lead to an anemic condition, and it can open the body to infections from other illnesses - viral or bacterial.
Walker leaves big plates of food daily on her lunch hour before heading to the ConAgra plant in Oakdale.
Walker was upset when she heard that an employee of the city of Ceres had advised one person to take unwanted cats and abandon them at Fox Grove, which is a popular boating launching facility on the Tuolumne River off of Geer Road.
"When I have someone who works for the city going around telling people to dump them there, people think ‘Oh it has to be okay because that works for the city and he told me to dump them there.' It's not alright. It's against the law."
She said Hughson residents are guilty as well of cat dumping.
Nearby is the Stanislaus Wildlife Care Center which not only does not take care of cats - that are not wildlife - it is unfriendly to cats, said Walker.
"If cats come on their property they trap them and take them to the pound to be destroyed," said Walker. "If I see one at the wildlife center I try to get them back down to the park where it came from because they will kill them."
Walker is registered with the Stanislaus Animal Services Shelter as a caregiver of feral cat colonies. She first became aware of the Fox Grove cats about 10 years ago when a friend told her that a neighbor took cats there. She visits and saw a hungry cat and fed it her French fries. "Then I had a horrible time and kept having nightmares so I finally went down there and started putting out some food and it kind of grew from there."
She has found limited help, such as those who donate food and one girl who volunteers to feed the cats on weekends.