Ocean Reef Cats – A History Through Today
By Holly Houser, Ocean Reef Press Editorial Assistant
Imagine driving through the Front Gate or even down your own street and seeing 80+ feral cats roaming around. That was the reality at Ocean Reef a few decades ago before a small group of Members, led by the late Alan Litman, took action to form ORCAT. ORCAT’s mission was to reduce the feral cat population utilizing the method of trapping, neutering and releasing, also known as TNR.
John Storm, current board member and former ORCAT President following Alan, remembers Ocean Reef had a significant rodent problem in its early years. Cats were introduced to help control the infestation, but within a few years, as the rat population went down, the cat population went up.
“Alan was very animal conscious and didn’t like seeing a couple thousand feral cats running around Ocean Reef,” explained John. “He started trapping and fixing them himself, taking them to the Upper Keys Veterinary Hospital in Islamorada, but the cats were all over the place and Alan decided to do something about it.”
In 1995, with the cooperation of the community, ORCA and the Club, Alan continued the TNR program on property and on a larger scale. The small building next to Golf Cart Repair became the new base of operations and a veterinarian who lived on property was happy to offer his services.
Next came Director Susan Hershey, who recently celebrated her 25th anniversary with the program. “I met Alan while working at the Upper Keys Veterinary Hospital where he was bringing the ORCATs,” said Susan. “I was impressed by his concern for the welfare of the cats, so when he told me his vision for the program and asked if I was interested in helping, I couldn’t say yes fast enough!”
“My first few days at Ocean Reef were overwhelming – there were cats everywhere! The first place Alan took me to was Pumpkin Cay. He opened up a small can of food and within a few minutes, I counted 72 cats. Everywhere he took me was the same – I was counting 50 to 80 cats. They were all thin, sick and unfixed. I couldn’t wait to get started!”
Three years later, Dr. Mae Wasson joined the ORCAT team, replacing the previous veterinarian. Susan, who worked with Dr. Mae at the Upper Keys Veterinary Hospital prior to joining ORCAT, said she still gets choked up remembering the first day she arrived: “She is such a kind, genuine person and as a veterinarian, I was blown away by her. When Alan told me he hired her I was so excited. I knew she was the perfect choice and was so happy to have her help in caring for the ORCATs.”
After 11 years of operating as a model TNR program, Alan spearheaded the idea of building their own facility that would also offer veterinary and grooming services to the community. That’s when the late Penny Stamps, former ORCAT Chairman and President, stepped in giving ORCAT its lead donation and the ability to leap forward. Their new building located by the Member Fitness Center became the Grayvik Animal Care Center Home of ORCAT. The building was named to honor Grayvik, an adopted ORCAT who saved the Stamps family from a house fire.
Luisa Bryan, current ORCAT Chairman and President, believes ORCAT’s mission to humanely control the feral cat population is very important to the Ocean Reef community: “We feel ORCATs are working cats and contribute to the ecological balance of The Reef.”
When ORCAT was founded, the estimated cat count was over 1,900 and in its first year of existence, they fixed more than 500. Now after 25 years, the roaming cat population is down to just over 200. The number of feedings stations have also decreased by more than 50% and there are approximately 100 cats available for adoption in the Grayvik Animal Care Center building.
“People don’t realize many of the cats housed in Grayvik come in as kittens or young cats and because of the loving care that Susan and the staff gives them, they become wonderful companions,” explained Luisa. “People are also surprised by how enjoyable it is to visit our cat room. The cats immediately come to greet you and are happy to sit on your lap. It’s part of our unique way of life to have a place like ORCAT.”
While ORCAT is currently closed to walk-ins, they’ve set up virtual visitation for anyone who misses the cat room. Follow @grayvikcenter on Instagram and tune in to the live feed Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Looking into the future, the Grayvik Animal Care Center building is on a limited lifespan. Their hope is to build a larger building that will allow for a broader range of services to be offered to our Members. If you’re interested in learning more, visit orcareef.com/grayvik-center/orcat.