Cat Action Trust 1977

AM talks to Flora Fleming, founder of the charity’s Ayrshire Branch

By Gill Sherry

Surprisingly, it was the death of Flora Fleming’s dog, Trouvee, that led to her rescuing feral cats and eventually, setting up a dedicated charity.

“Trouvee died on 8th July 1992,” Flora tells me. “I totally adored Trouvee, she was my soul mate and I was heartbroken. I’d been told a few days earlier about a timid cat behind a butcher’s shop in Kilmarnock. Trouvee loved cats so I decided to help this wee cat in her memory and put my grief to some use.”

However, there wasn’t just one cat, there were 12, including a couple of tiny kittens.

“It was a terrible situation so I knew I had to do something to help them.”

Flora tracked down an old cat trap with the intention of trapping the cats, having them spayed/neutered, and then returning them to the original site. This wasn’t an easy task. The trap was indiscriminate so progress was slow as well as personally expensive.

Bertha

“Then I heard of over 20 cats along the road. No rescue charity had ever helped street cats in Ayrshire and I decided I wanted to do something about it.”

Flora realised she needed to join a bigger charity but says there were very few options. Then someone told her about Cat Action Trust 1977, a charity run entirely by volunteers.

“Set up in 1977 in London, this charity’s aim from the start was to help the cats no other charity saw as a priority – those struggling on the streets, living feral. I joined Cat ’77 in May 1993 so this year sees the branch’s 30th anniversary.”

Flora admits to disliking the term ’feral’.

“I feel it gives the mistaken idea that these cats are somehow genetically different. They aren’t. They were either born outside so never handled, or were once domestic cats abandoned by people. Their true personalities lie under a cover of fear, and in some that fear can be unlocked. For instance, feral cats picked up ill or injured and who have to be nursed back to health so often come out the other side having learnt to trust humans. They aren’t all going to be lap cats, but then neither are all domesticated cats.”

Although she’s now retired, Flora was a full-time teacher for the first 20 years with the rescue.

“There were colonies everywhere, literally thousands of cats and kittens needing help. I was out most nights after school trapping. Weekends were spent running car boot stalls to help pay for it all.”

Jess – found abandoned

Although she no longer sees huge colonies of feral cats, she does now have other concerns.

“What happened during Covid,” she explains, “is that unscrupulous people realised pups, kittens etc were hard to come by as most shelters closed their doors. Such people deliberately let their animals breed so they could sell the offspring. What’s happening now is that so many of these animals obtained over the Covid period are unwanted or are themselves being used as potential money-makers. The bottom has fallen out of that market now, of course, and so it all starts again.”

Flora’s other worry is for the branch’s future. Although she has a wonderful support group of fosterers and people who help by giving donations of food and cash, there isn’t anyone with the experience or ability to take over the running of the branch when Flora is no longer able.

“I’m nearly 75,” she says. “I don’t have another 30 years. That worries me because within a very short time it would be like it was 30 years ago unless there’s an active group helping the cats living feral, or left to become feral. Trapping cats to have them neutered, done properly, isn’t easy and requires a lot of patience to ensure that every single one in the colony is caught. And that’s only part of the work.”

The charity’s East Kilbride branch had to close when Joan, the lady who had run it for almost 30 years, passed away in April last year.

“There’s no other rescue in that area helping cats living feral. Without a doubt, their numbers will escalate out of control very quickly, despite all the work done by Joan over three decades.”

Pippin (top) and Heather – sisters in permanent foster care

In spite of her worries for the future, Flora’s keen to tell me how gratifying the work is. Whilst it can be distressing and demanding, it can also be very rewarding. She gives me one such example.

“Bertha came into our care after being badly injured on her farm home. She’d never been handled so I had her in a cage in the house. She was too ill to eat so I had to feed her with a syringe. Her pelvis was damaged so she couldn’t use her back legs. X- rays discovered a tiny bit of fractured bone close to her spine so she was referred to the vet hospital in Glasgow. The specialist there said the splinter couldn’t be removed and although she was no longer in pain, she would never walk again. Bertha didn’t agree!”

The joy in Flora’s voice is unmistakable as she shares this particular tale.

“She now runs about the house with a comical gait, she tries to climb trees to catch the birds, and when she’s out in the garden and isn’t ready to come in, I can’t catch her! She’s so sweet.”

At this point, Flora gives thanks to her vet, Exclusively Cats in Ayr, before telling me about another rescued cat called Colin who had been abandoned to the streets of Motherwell.

“Colin needed extensive treatment for deep-seated ear polyps. His specialist treatments ending up costing us around £4,500, but he’s so happy now in permanent foster care so it was worth every penny.”

Pippin (top) and Heather – sisters in permanent foster care

According to Flora, there isn’t a bit of Ayrshire that hasn’t had cats in need of help. In fact, it’s not unusual for the charity to go beyond the county’s boundaries to help, rescue and rehome cats and kittens. Knowing how hard Flora works and how difficult it is to keep on top of this endless challenge, I ask how people can help.

“We could use more fosterers,” she says, “but we have to be as fussy about the fosterers as we are about the homes. I go and visit every potential home.”

What about donations?

“People donate cat food, and monthly or occasional monetary donations and that helps an awful lot. We have a supplier, Gibb of Galston, and have set up a wish list with them so people can donate directly into that. Such donations have helped us through some very rough times.

“It never ends,” concludes Flora, “but at least now there is a degree of control. The struggle is to ensure the situation never gets back to what it once was.”

If you’d like to learn more about the charity, would like to donate or volunteer, contact Flora on 01563 525814, email cat77ayrshire@hotmail.co.uk or find Cat Action Trust 1977 Ayrshire Branch on Facebook.