Diane Straney and the Feline Freedom Coalition are on a quest to save feral cats 

The Cat Lady

Diane Straney first began caring for feral cats after she retired

Jonathan Boncek

Diane Straney first began caring for feral cats after she retired

There are many ways to classify people in this world. There are Democrats and Republicans. There are Clemson people and Carolina people. And there are cat people and dog people.

The hero, the champion, the saint of the cat world is a petite, compulsively driven, dark-haired woman named Diane Straney. From her 20-acre compound in the woods of Ravenel, 20 miles south of Charleston, Straney heads a loose network of cat lovers, humanitarians, and gently eccentric volunteers whose mission is to save as many of the area's stray and dispossessed felines as possible. And she has saved thousands.

On a warm day in early December, Straney gave me a tour of her facilities, home of the Feline Freedom Coalition. It's called the Sanctuary, and it's composed of a hodge-podge of 14 structures: ramshackle RVs and trailers, converted shipping containers, plywood sheds, and heavy-duty steel cages on concrete pads. A neat double-wide serves as the home to her sole employee and shelter manager, a young woman named Jennifer Bouronich. A storage trailer is piled up with sacks of cat food. Another small trailer contains two washing machines and two dryers. On the day I was there, two volunteers were washing, drying, and folding blankets, towels and other bedding for the approximately 150 feline residents.

The Sanctuary is the place for cats that were trapped and spayed/neutered, but were too old or infirm to be returned to their colonies. They will live out the rest of their lives here, under Straney's protective gaze. Others are in quarantine and being treated for nonfatal diseases, such as ringworm. Kittens have their own building, where they are acclimated to humans and prepared for adoption. And a lucky few — maybe a dozen — wander the wooded grounds like trustees in a jail, free to come and go as they please. It pleased two of them to hop up on the hood of my car and warm themselves.

click to enlarge The feline accommodations at the Freedom Coalition range from tent cities to swanky bunk houses - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The feline accommodations at the Freedom Coalition range from tent cities to swanky bunk houses

Straney works 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, "cleaning, scooping, and medicating," she says. Refugees come to her shelter from several sources, but she does not take them from the public. That does not stop people from calling her every day, wanting to dump their unwanted cats on her. "My voicemail is full every day," she says. "I can't possibly answer them all." Her voice and her face show the strain she lives under.

This is not a typical day for Diane Straney. She will leave most of her cleaning, scooping, and medicating to others. For the next few minutes, she pits her 105-pound frame against 40-pound bags of cat food, dragging and hoisting them into the back of a big, white Chevy cargo van. This is part of the 400 to 500 pounds of cat food she goes through every week. She also loads three heavy-duty, live-catch traps into the van, and climbs behind the wheel. I get in on the passenger side, and we head out of the compound, through a pine thicket, past dilapidated houses and trailers in the poor rural community, and out to U.S. 17.

It's been a long, circuitous road for Straney. After graduating from Bishop England High School some 40 years ago, she headed to Swarthmore and earned a degree in philosophy. Then it was on to Boston University for a degree in computer sciences, which she got while working as a computer programmer for Harvard Medical School Epidemiology Department.

She married along the way. Over time, she and her husband built and sold a highly successful software company that developed trading systems for Bear Stearns, Charles Schwaab, Goldman Sachs, and other Wall Street names.

Straney inspects a captured cat - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Straney inspects a captured cat

Straney's mother and grandmother both had cats and taught her to love animals. But her most formative experience, she says, came at Bishop England. "We learned ethics and morality. We learned to care about others." she says. She abandoned any formal religion years ago, replacing it with a blend of Jack Kerouac, Mother Teresa, and Zen. And she never forgot the others. "I want to alleviate suffering," she says. "That's my main goal in life. Animals have no rights. They have nothing. That's why I do what I do."

Straney and her husband retired in 1995 and bought a house on the Isle of Palms. "My first day in Charleston I walked in the back door of the house to the front porch to admire an ocean view and begin to fantasize about how I was going to spend the rest of my life having a good time. On the porch sat a starving gray cat covered in mange."

She fed the poor creature hot dogs and found him a vet. And her life took a sudden, unexpected turn down a strange, uncharted road. Of course, she adopted the cat. She named him Blue, and he became a part of her life until he died of cancer 10 years later.

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

On the day after she found Blue on her porch, she and her husband went down to the marina to spend a day on their new boat. "As we launched it, I looked at the dumpster where there were three or four cats looking for food. That night I went back under cover of darkness to feed them. As it turned out, there were about 20 cats there that I continued to feed."

Soon she was slipping out almost every night, dressed in black, crawling under fences, sneaking behind buildings and around dumpsters, anywhere stray cats gathered. She fed them, then trapped them, carried them to veterinarians to be spayed and neutered, returned and released them. It was risky business. She was trespassing almost every time she went out. Maybe she was smart. Maybe she was lucky. Whatever the reason, she carried out her clandestine missions for years without getting caught.

Straney has no children ("I would never dream of bringing another sentient being into this world," she says) and somewhere along the way, she and her husband parted company. ("Let's just say my ex-husband never appreciated my work with feral cats"). Some people think she is a "crazy cat lady," she says, but she doesn't care. In fact, she says, "I really don't like people very much." She has a loving family who have come to understand what she is about. And she has numerous volunteers who help her trap strays, maintain her compound, and support some 30 colonies of spayed and neutered ferals around Charleston County.

She is also assisted by two important organizations: Charleston Animal Society and Pet Helpers. These institutions provide the veterinarians who spay and neuter the strays Staney and her volunteers bring in. While they are anesthetized, these cats are vaccinated against a number of feline diseases, micro-chipped, and have the tips clipped off their left ears, the universal sign that they have been spayed/neutered. When the animal is sufficiently recovered, it is returned and released at the place where it was caught. With any luck, it will live many years, being fed by one of Straney's volunteers. But it will never add another kitten to the population.

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

The program is called TNR — Trap-Neuter-Return — and Charleston County has one of the most successful TNR programs anywhere. In fact, it is a big part of the reason Charleston County was recognized last fall as the only no-kill community in the Southeast.

A no-kill community is one in which no healthy or treatable animal is euthanized. The only animals that are put down are those that are so ill they cannot be treated or so aggressive they are unsafe. In 2013, 92 percent of animals brought into Charleston County shelters left alive. By contrast, most communities in Georgia and the Carolinas put down 50 percent or more of their animals. Richland County euthanized two-thirds of the animals brought into its shelters in 2012.

In 2010, Charleston County and its municipalities adopted the Free Roaming Cat Program, with a grant from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Under this program, stray and feral cats would no longer be trapped and put down. They would be spay/neutered and returned to their colonies.

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Diane Straney: The Cat Lady
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Diane Straney: The Cat Lady

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The Free Roaming Cat Program turned the tide in the battle to control feral cat populations, says Joe Elmore, CEO of Charleston Animal Society and a big supporter of Straney's work. "People are always going to feed stray and feral cats," Elmore says. "It's human nature and I think it's an American value. We just don't want to see anyone — human or animal — go hungry. But people were not going to call the Animal Society for help if they knew the cats would be killed."

The Free Roaming Cat Program gave people assurance that the cats they had come to love would not be trapped and euthanized. They started calling for help from animal control agencies and the Feline Freedom Coalition. Feral cats were spayed/neutered in record numbers. Colony sizes stabilized and the number of ferals brought into Charleston Animal Society has declined in the last two years as the general population has begun to decline, Elmore says.

Diane Straney and her volunteer trappers and feeders have been a big part of that success, but it requires constant vigilance to monitor the scores of colonies around the county.

This morning Straney is dressed as she is most mornings — completely in black. "Because it fits my psyche," she says with only a trace of irony. "And I am hands-on every day. By the end of the day my clothes are always dirty."

Her uniform includes black cargo pants with lots of pockets to carry a pen, phone, keys, a pocket knife, and a tiny black light, which she uses to look for ringworm on cats that are brought in. Everything else she carries in a black bag across her chest. She never carries a purse. She wears a black sweatshirt with the edgy Feline Freedom Coalition logo, featuring the black-on-white face of a cat staring intently back at the observer. Above that image are the words, "No Ball of String Too Big," a motto that reflects Straney's confidence that no challenge is too great for her and her volunteers .

Straney wheels the big van down a narrow road deep in the woods somewhere between Ravenel and Hollywood, stopping at a small, rundown rural house. There are close to 20 cats lounging around in the sun on the porch and in the yard. There are tabbies and tigers, torties and calicoes. They all sport a clipped ear. They preen and nuzzle one another, then scatter from the front of the house as we drive up. This is one of the colonies composing a population of about 500 feral cats in the Hollywood-Ravenel area.

From the house emerges a curious, disheveled, unshaven, middle-aged man. His name is Ed and Straney engages him in conversation about his colony. He is surprisingly articulate and eager to talk. Ed is worried that some of his boarders are not well. He and Straney talk for about 20 minutes about the colony, their symptoms and behaviors, any new strays that might be hanging around. She unloads three bags of cat food and some clean blankets, assures him that she will be back, then heads out to her next stop.

She shakes her head wearily. "We need medicine. We need food. We need everything," she says. "That is why I am so worried that we have to find some more money."

It costs about $125,000 a year to fund the Feline Freedom Coalition. Straney founded the organization and built the Sanctuary largely from her savings, but she can no longer pour her own money into the venture. That's why, when she is not cleaning, scooping, and medicating, she is looking for donors, writing grant proposals, and organizing fund-raising parties, such as a recent Mardi Gras bash at the Citadel Beach House.

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

Next stop: a small trailer with a sagging front porch on the side of U.S. 17. It was once a commercial structure. Now it is the home of a tattered, rustic, bearded gentleman in his 70s, named Richard. The grounds around the building are cluttered with old machinery and salvaged building materials. And cats. Lots and lots of cats.

"Oh, Lord," Straney says driving up to the building and scanning the grounds. She realizes there are too many cats, many of them without tipped ears. This colony used to be all spayed and neutered, she tells me, and she thought she had it under control. Now there are new arrivals that must be trapped and neutered, and at least one kitten as evidence of a new population explosion. The fact that there are no other kittens tells her that they are dying of a common disease, feline infectious peritonitis. FIP is always fatal. All Straney can do is capture the sick members of the colony before they infect the others. This is going to take a lot of work.

The old man comes out of the trailer to talk. He tells her he doesn't know how many cats he has around the place. Straney guesses it's close to 30. She asks more questions about the behavior and condition of the colony, noting that some of them look underfed. She spends about 15 minutes with Richard, surveying the grounds, counting cats, asking questions. Finally, she unloads some cat food and three steel traps from the back of the van and tells Richard she will be back with six more traps. Getting this colony cleaned up will be a major project.

Back in the van, she heads to her next stop: a little old woman in a little old house on the edge of an old farm field north of Ravenel. On the way she talks about the last colony, about the frustration and sense of futility that sometimes overwhelms her. She sounds like a combination of a parish priest and a country doctor, traveling from colony to colony, observing, consulting, diagnosing, offering emotional support, even when she seems in need of it herself.

"It's like emptying the ocean with a spoon," she says of trapping feral cats. "You have to go after them one at a time. Some people tell me, 'Diane, you can't save them all.' That's the wrong attitude. You have to try to save every one. You have to save every one. Every one."

She heads back to the Sanctuary to get more traps and more food. Straney lives by her Bluetooth. As she drives, she talks excitedly, passionately to volunteers, talks to clinics and adoption centers, talks about one cat or another, one crisis or another. Somebody needs cat food, somebody needs traps, somebody has a question about feline diseases and symptoms. But the Bluetooth is a distraction she doesn't need. It has caused her to collect a clutch of traffic tickets, just another expense in her cash-strapped operation.

Back at the Sanctuary, she loads more food and traps into the van and checks in on the progress in the laundry room. While she is there, she looks in on a long-hair, yellow kitten in a small cage. It is quarantined because it has ringworm, she says. It's too small to be placed in the quarantine building with the other sick cats, and it's too sick to be placed in the building with the other kittens. So here it sits, being treated and isolated in the laundry room.

When feral kittens are brought in, they are put in a special building with other people-friendly cats and the process of "turning" them begins. They are exposed to people daily and taught not to fear humans. It's a process Straney calls the Last Chance Charm School. If they are brought in before they are six weeks old, the process usually works and the end result is a sweet, domesticated kitten, ready to be adopted.

When they are 12 weeks old, these kittens are sent to the Charleston Animal Society to be spayed/neutered and vaccinated. Then it's off to one of the local PetSmart stores, where they are placed in a cage near the front door, waiting for someone to come along, fall in love with them, and take them home. The adoption process costs $75, Straney says, and the entire price is returned to the Feline Freedom Coalition.

As Straney heads back out on the road in the early afternoon, it is obvious that lunch is not on her schedule. She seems to subsist on Kirkland brand two-ounce Energy Shots. The rest of the afternoon is spent dropping off sacks of food, checking on colonies in the Ravenel-Hollywood area, listening and advising with the colony keepers.

In her grim intensity, Straney rarely smiles and never laughs. Yet she is brought to tears at the memory of one of her long-time volunteers, an elderly woman who died recently, but not before she trapped more than 100 strays and brought them into the Sanctuary. Whatever drives her, it is not joy and it is more complicated than love. It seems to border on anger. In this regard, she reminds me of Mother Teresa, who — even in her many moments of personal doubt — never doubted her duty.

"This may be sacrilegious," she says, "but I often think that what I am doing is God's job and I wonder why He isn't doing it. Where is He?"

At five o'clock, most of the world is going home from work. Diane Straney is just finishing up with her rounds and heading back to her office at the Sanctuary. That tightly packed office is located in a small trailer that houses one cat and a couple of computers, several folding chairs and tables, piles of spreadsheets and other paperwork. There are no pictures of kittens on the walls or tables, no cat knickknacks on the tables, nothing personal or sentimental. To look at it, this might be a construction trailer. She runs the whole operation from her computer, which has nearly 200 files on its desktop.

Straney looks tired, but she is still animated as she talks about her volunteers and her plans for the Sanctuary. It is volunteers who make the whole thing work, she says. Volunteers who trap strays and bring them in to one of the clinics to be spayed/neutered, then returned to their colonies. Volunteers who do chores around the compound. Volunteers to do maintenance on the various buildings. A young Charleston School of Law student had recently made some carpentry repairs on one of the buildings, she said, but she was also looking for electricians and plumbers with a love for cats. And she needs materials: "Paper towels, bleach, plastic garbage bags. I can never get enough of those things."

A long-range goal is to fence in about a half-acre of woods on the edge of the compound to give some of her many caged and penned felines a place to roam in safety. It would offer benches, trails, and a meditation garden for her volunteers. But that will take a lot of money and a lot of volunteer labor. She has no budget for promoting her work and recruiting volunteers. She has only a website — FelineFreedom.org — which she talks up to anyone who will listen.

It's 6 p.m. and almost dark when I leave Straney's office, walk back to my car, brush the feline footprints off the hood and drive back out to U.S. 17. But it will be hours before Diane Straney rests from her life's work of making Charleston County safe for cats.


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