SHAMOKIN - If anyone understands that the cat infestation in Shamokin is a multifaceted problem, it's Rick Bozza.

As the city's code officer, Bozza deals with the side effects of the estimated 400 to 600 feral cats that have made Shamokin their home.

In a May 9 story, The News-Item reported that Bozza was eyeing an ordinance passed by the Northumberland Borough requiring cat licenses, spaying and neutering and leashing cats while outdoors. The ordinance would also ban outdoor feeding and create a system of euthanizing feral cats.

In the past month, the public has responded with calls and emails to Bozza's office. According to Bozza, the majority of messages he's received have been in support of his proposal. Additionally, a representative of PETA called him in support of the proposal.

Bozza's stance on the issue has not changed.

"I grew up with cats in my house. There's a time and a place for them," said Bozza. "If you want to keep the cats, that's fine. Put a collar on them and get a license."

Bozza has also been the recipient of a petition, created through Change.org, that hosts nearly 1,700 signatures.

The petition, titled "No Euthanasia For Stray Cats," pleads for Bozza to reconsider his opinion of euthanizing feral cats. The petition also advocates trap, neuter, release (TNR), a method of reducing the cat population by trapping feral cats, having them spayed or neutered and releasing them back again.

Bozza said 80 percent of the signatures on the most recent copy of the petition are from the region. Of the signatures visible on the website, none were listed as being from Shamokin. The petition's creator, Brytni Neidig, is listed as a resident of Sunbury.

Caring for ferals

Laurie Gunsallus, of Sunbury, signed the petition to support TNR and discourage Bozza from euthanizing feral cats.

Gunsallus is the owner of New Beginnings Feral Rescue, the closest cat shelter to Shamokin. She began the rescue in 2013 after watching her daughter, who has bipolar disorder, interact with cats on a nearby farm. Because the cats had such a calming affect on her daughter's mania, she decided to begin taking in feral cats. She currently cares for up to 55 cats at a time in her home, focusing her efforts on stray kittens and their mothers.

New Beginnings Feral Rescue operates on donations and money from Gunsallus' own pocket. She said she receives four to five calls daily about strays, but because her operation is full, she has to turn them away.

"I'm swamped," said Gunsallus. "It breaks my heart to say no."

To cut operational costs, Gunsallus has learned to give shots, which she provides for every cat before it is adopted. She uses an estimated 300 pounds of litter per week and keeps a 50 gallon container of food full at all times.

She also works closely with the Beckoning Cat Project, a Williamsport-based nonprofit organization that focuses on managing the cat overpopulation in central Pennsylvania. Through the Beckoning Cat Project, Gunsallus can spay and neuter her cats for $40 each.

Other low-cost TNR programs exist in Pennsylvania. Jo Wright, of PA Pets, said her Bloomsburg-based organization offers TNR on a sliding scale of $15 to $35.

Gunsallus makes adoptive parties sign an agreement that if the cat is not already fixed, it will be spayed or neutered within six months of adoption or it will be returned to her. She also requires vet references.

"I gotta know in my heart that they're taken care of," said Gunsallus.

Kerry Perry, the executive director of the Beckoning Cat Project, said that while Gunsallus is making a small impact on the feral and stray cats in the Sunbury area, a larger solution is required to control the population growth in Shamokin.

"It's a community problem," she said, adding that Shamokin needs a "community solution" for cats. "You have to have caregivers. It could be the people that are already feeding."

Serious issue in Northumberland County

Currently, Shamokin has no shelters for stray or feral cats.

Ronald Hollister, a police officer with the Humane Society, said the lack of a cat shelter and spay/neuter services in the Shamokin area is a big contributing factor in the booming cat population.

"There's very few resources up in Northumberland County," said Hollister. "Something has to be established, some kind of animal control situation."

Hollister said he hoped the county would become involved with cat control and suggested converting an unused building into a place to temporarily house strays and perform spaying and neutering.

"Euthanizing cats is not even in our policy," said Hollister. "TNR is the true long term solution. But we need something now to figure out where we're going with them."

Complicating the issue of too many cats is Hollister's workload. Because he works from the Harrisburg area, he has to travel more than an hour to respond to a call in Northumberland county. He's had to bring in Richard Wright, who lives in Shamokin and volunteers at the Phoenix Rescue Group in Carlisle, as a volunteer first responder to help with serious calls.

"Northumberland County has one of the highest number of complaints for animal cruelty that we get," said Wright.

The call volume in Northumberland county does not represent a higher number of animal cruelty acts; many of the calls are frivolous, made in "revenge" by a neighbor, he said.

Wright recalled a day when he responded to eight calls and found five of of the incidents did not involve animal abuse whatsoever.

"Probably 10 percent of the calls we get are legitimate calls," said Wright.

Hollister said someone has to respond to every call received by the Humane Society, so he can't filter callers even if he suspects the call will result in nothing. Each call takes an hour or more to investigate.

Because the volume of these "revenge" calls has become taxing on the Humane Society, Hollister said he's looking into prosecuting people who intentionally file false calls of animal abuse.

Still, Hollister doesn't want to discourage people who honestly believe an animal is being abused.

"If you see something, take pictures and get a hold of us," said Hollister.

Strays protected by law

Hollister also warns to never take matters into your own hands when dealing with an animal. Cats are protected animals under Pennsylvania state law which means anyone found to be intentionally harming a cat can face a slew of penalties ranging from a citation to a felony charge.

Poisoning stray and feral cats, said Hollister, is one of the more common animal abuse crimes in the Shamokin area. Adding antifreeze or any other poison to cat food and placing it outdoors is considered at least a misdemeanor offense.

Fix if you feed

Hollister doesn't believe outdoor feeding should be banned, although he thinks the person feeding the cats should take responsibility and spay and neuter the cats in the colony.

"I have a feral colony that I feed," said Hollister. "I captured them and had them spayed and neutered."

Gunsallus said she thought controlled feeding could be a solution.

"If people want to feed them, it would be nice to have one place for that," said Gunsallus. "That would keep the cats in one area."

Bozza believes if the widespread outdoor feeding ends, the multiplication of cats will slow.

"People are thinking if they don't feed them the animals are going to starve," said Bozza. "But that's not the right thing to do."

With a goal of having the ordinance in place by August or September, Bozza said he hopes to craft it soon. After a draft is complete, he will present it, like all ordinances, to city council.