Operation Fancy Free’s trap-neuter-release mission for cats is in its ninth year

Suzette Lowe

It all started when kittens were mistaken for puppies. And nine years later, countless numbers of kittens and cats have been saved, either physically or in the prevention of litters being born.

Kathy Stone and her husband Bryan were driving in Ripley and looked over at a local restaurant parking lot and saw what they thought was a bunch of puppies.

“I told Bryan that we had to stop and see what was going on,” she recalled. “It turned out to be 34 kittens all alone. From that moment on, our lives changed.”

The couple did take care of those cats and Operation Fancy Free (OFF), the trap-neuter-release program in Jackson County, was born.

“We did it by investing our own money,” Kathy said. “But we were awfully green back then. We put the cart before the horse. Trapping a bunch of cats, keeping them in our outside building and then trying to find a veterinarian. We needed that vet first.”

When they first began, the only vet they could find who was willing to take them and their cats was in Barboursville.

“Those were hard times,” Kathy recalled. “We’d have to get them down there on the vet day by 7:30 a.m. and then Bryan would be back at 4 p.m. to pick them up. That went on for quite some time.”

Then things changed for the better.

“We had asked our local vets if anyone would be willing to partner with us,” Kathy said. “We found Dr. Tammy Barickman and Ripley Paws.”

Dr. Barickman had been trying to deal with the community cat problem but couldn’t watch the traps on a regular basis. Being well-versed in the trap-neuter-release process, she understood the vision and mission the Stones had.

“I can’t tell you how much we appreciate Dr. Barickman and Paws,” said Kathy. “She does the surgeries personally and her incisions are usually about 1/4-inch long for less chance of infection. Community cats won’t let you care for them like domestic cats will. When she’s not available, Dr. Welling steps in.”

With the work of Bryan, Kathy and a small team of volunteers, anywhere between 90 and 120 cats are taken care of a month at Ripley Paws.

“Not all the cats we do are community cats; we also take requests from those with domestic cats that need fixed,” Kathy said. “We have a system in place, but our community cats come first. Right now, we have about 90 on a waiting list.”

The one thing people often don’t understand about the trap-neuter-release program (TNR) is that OFF cannot come onto private property to deal with the situation unless invited or allowed by the owner.

“We know there are some serious issues in areas of the county, particularly in Ravenswood,” Kathy said. “And we certainly want to take care of them, but it is a process that we handle carefully.”

Even though the name of the organization is Operation Fancy Free, the spaying, neutering, feeding and other issues of many of the community cats don’t come free.

“We have been fortunate to have received grants from various organizations,” Kathy said. “And we have wonderful donors and sponsors. Locally, Tractor Supply has a barrel that people put lots of food donations in and Walmart gives us bags of food that have been damaged but are still safe for our cats. Our vet gives us discounts as well. We are also part of the Kroger Community Cares and Amazon Smile. If people will pick us as their charity, these two will give us a portion of sales.”

Currently, the non-profit is taking part in the #Communitycatspodcast grant opportunity that will match $1,000 in donations raised. For the past several years, the Two Mauds organization from New York City has been a source of generous grants. Recently, OFF was the recipient of a $2,500 grant from the very competitive PetCo Love foundation.

“This grant is such an easy opportunity,” Kathy said. “We are asking, as part of our 'Cat O’Nine-Palooza 2021,' for $9 donations. It’s our ninth-year anniversary and we want to keep doing what we do.”

The TNR process is not an easy one. It is not simply a phone call to the Stones to come take care of a colony. There are steps that must be taken for the animals to be humanely trapped and then taken to the vet.

Cats are humanely trapped and taken to the vet for spaying, neutering and any health problems.

“These cats have to be prepped,” explained Kathy. “There has to be a feeding schedule set up by the person wanting the job done. Supper must be at 4 p.m. and the cats will come expecting to be fed. We require a head count, so we’ll know how many traps to bring. It’s all in the timing and that’s in the partnership between us, the person contacting us and the vet.”

The ‘return’ part of TNR is often something that is misunderstood.

“These community cats want to go back ‘home’ when they can,” Kathy said. “The important part is that they can no longer re-produce. Many of them are not going to be adopted or fostered. It’s not the life they want or accept. But they can no longer have kittens and that is vital.”

The Stones have a small army of volunteers, but they especially rely on two women, Julie Price and Kat Null.

Price not only volunteers in the trapping but she also operates WV Pet Project on YouTube which follows the trapping events of OFF and shows a video on how to live trap safely and properly. The mission of the WV Pet Project is to bring awareness and attention to the animals in West Virginia that are abandoned, unwanted, abused and often forgotten, with a focus on feral cats.

Null serves as the secretary and treasurer of the non-profit organization and maintains the group’s Facebook page.

“What people don’t understand is that trapping is a silent event,” said Kathy. “It’s not a party where you can chat a lot. Sometimes it takes six to eight hours to get the cats. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but we’re blessed in our volunteers.”

Bryan Stone and Julie Price monitor the drop traps OFF uses when live traps aren’t the best option.

Getting cats fostered and adopted is also part of Operation Fancy Free’s goal. While many of the cats need to be placed back in their colony location, several are ready for homes or barns.

“One of our most recent was Pretty Princess,” Kathy said with a smile. “Our adopter saw her on Facebook. We had trapped for her before and she always did it right, so we knew she could handle the suspicious, feisty Pretty Princess. I was bouncing off the wall when she contacted us. Taking in a community cat takes a lot of patience. But they are such a blessing once they trust you.”

With cold weather coming, Stone said it’s harder to trap. OFF encourages the trapping to continue but when the temperature is 40 degrees or below, the animals need to be sheltered in a barn or building.

The ultimate message that the Stones and Operation Fancy Free want to stress is to spay or neuter cats.

“Cats as young as 4 months old can have kittens,” she said. “If you have a cat, get them spayed or neutered at 3 months. We try for 2 months on community cats as long as they’re at least two pounds.”

Operation Fancy Free in its nine years has spayed or neutered over 4,800 cats and the job isn’t finished.

“Research says a full-fledged TNR should have achieved total success in eight years,” she said. “We’re in our ninth year and the job isn’t done. But we’ll keep at it as long as we possibly can. If you need help, please contact us.”

To contact the group, call 304-531-8710 or email operationfancyfree@gmail.com. Follow the group on Facebook or visit www.operationfancyfree.weebly.com.