Theresa Sumrall doesn’t spend her lunch breaks conversing with coworkers — instead, stray cats are usually her company of choice.
Sumrall, 38, has spent almost 15 years working with Gainesville’s cat colonies — treating more than 200 homeless cats across the city through veterinary care, end-of-life care and occasional rehoming. Now, she’s turned to the community to ask for donations supporting her cause.
“With a little bit of help from people — a little bit of human support — you can see that these cats thrive," she said.
Sumrall created a GoFundMe in August to pay off past emergency veterinary bills and fund future medical care for homeless cats. Of her $15,000 goal, the fundraiser has received more than $7,000. All funds Sumrall receives go directly toward helping 35 cats from seven different homeless cat colonies across Alachua County.
The majority of her time is spent visiting and caring for cat colonies — groups of free-roaming stray cats who travel together and frequent a particular territory, Sumrall said. Some strays that have been abandoned by their owners initially are afraid of human interaction, she said, but she makes the effort to make sure they feel safe.
“They're domesticated cats that never got a chance to know that humans can provide love and kindness, so they're afraid,” Sumrall said. “It can take a long time to earn the trust of a cat who's never had a home or friendly face before.”
As a vegan and self-proclaimed animal advocate, Sumrall said, she’s passionate about taking steps to prevent suffering among homeless cats.
Sumrall started supporting local cat colonies in 2008, spending 14 years working with Operation Catnip, a Gainesville nonprofit, before beginning to work with cats independently. Operation Catnip offers free spaying, neutering and vaccinations for stray cats in Alachua County and releases them back into their territory.
Operation Catnip currently sees about 500 cats a month and has sterilized close to 7,000 cats this year, operations director Melissa Jenkins said.
The high volume of strays is directly correlated with Florida’s high temperatures, Jenkins said. Cats reproduce primarily in the heat, she said, which prolongs the kitten season in the state from around April to November.
“There's really a lot that goes against us, mainly our climates,” Jenkins said. “Most communities outside of Florida don't have the warm temperatures as long as we do, and so that's when we’re seeing a lot of the reproduction happen with cats outside.”
Operation Catnip primarily focuses on stray cat sterilization, which reduces their reproduction.
Beyond reproduction, Sumrall said, some of the biggest risks for strays in Gainesville are injury from cat fights and urinary blockages among male cats, which is considered a medical emergency and can lead to heart failure or death.
Diseases commonly found among strays range from FIV — the feline version of HIV — to dental diseases like stomatitis, an inflammation of the mouth that makes eating incredibly painful. Often, Sumrall said, cats with stomatitis will find it easier to starve to death than to eat. Even after treatment, some of the cats will have to live indoors on steroids or immunosuppressants for the rest of their lives, she said.
“I've had several rescues over the years with that issue,” Sumrall said. “It's more common than people think.”
Throughout her decade tending to Gainesville cats, she said, she has helped some strays be adopted — but only if they were suffering from medical issues, unhappy with their environment or not an outdoor cat. Cats who were born indoors and then abandoned, she said, often lack the survival skills to live outside.
However, most cats who were born outdoors can thrive independently, Sumrall said.
Precious — a community cat who has received multiple adoption offers — is an example of a stray who doesn’t like to be confined, Sumrall said. Precious has lived her whole life in the same area, Sumrall said, so she’s more comfortable living independently and outdoors.
“These homeless cats can live outside for a long time perfectly well,” she said. “They're happier in the territory they know, for the most part.”
Gainesville’s relationship with stray cats is complicated, Sumrall said.
On one hand, the city has some of the best homeless-cat-related resources in the state — benefits supplemented by Operation Catnips’ continuous efforts to sterilize and release strays. Alachua County has abided by the national standards for a “no-kill” community since 2017, meaning 90% of all animals who enter the city’s shelter leave it alive.
But Gainesville can also be unsafe for cats, Sumrall said, with many homeless felines being dumped outside by students who move away or no longer want a pet.
Another major problem homeless cats face in Alachua County is that big institutions like UF sometimes trap and remove cats from their premises — leaving strays separated from their territory and putting them at major risk, Sumrall said.
Some institutions argue homeless cats take a toll on the environment, viewing them as nuisances that need to be removed from their property, Sumrall said — but research shows differently. Instead, sterilizing strays and releasing them back into their territory is the best way to reduce their environmental impact, she said.
“It would be great to see large institutions in Gainesville, like the University of Florida, embrace Trap-Neuter-Return as the most humane and long-term community cat management strategy,” Sumrall said.
But for now, major change lies in the hands of residents like Sumrall and other members of the community willing to donate a few dollars along the way.
Contact Luna Boales at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @LunaBoales.
Luna Boales is a third-year journalism major and avenue staff reporter. When she's not reporting, you'll find her writing poetry, meditating or reading.