This article was run in our newsletter back in 2009, in memory of Jean we decided it should have a permanent place on the web site.
Jean Pickard has been a volunteer with Swale Cats Protection for 17 years now. She fosters cats and has been looking after the feral cat colony in Sheerness for nearly 30 years now.
This is her story ...
Hello Jean. Could you tell me a bit about how you got involved with the feral cats at Sheppey prison? My husband was a civilian instructional officer teaching bricklaying at the prison. He started by feeding two cats by the welfare block. I then started working at the prison in the works department where there were a few cats about, so I started feeding them twice a day at my office. This carried on for quite a long time. After I left work, I carried on but it snowballed, people were telling me there were kittens near the farm and some cats by the bore hole. So of course I started putting food down for them as well, eventually I was putting food down in six different places every day. Now, we put food down only once a day.
How did the cats get there in the first place? The Airforce introduced the cats during the war to keep the rat population down and all these cats are their descendants.
So how long have you been doing this? Around 25 to 30 years now Before Swale Cats protection was set up then? Oh yes. I can't remember how I met Tony and Val, who started the branch, but they did ask me if I would be prepared to become a fosterer. Of course I said yes. This was about 17 years ago, and they had been running the then Isle of Sheppey Cats Protection for quite a few years. I had 2 pens put in and have been fostering ever since. I have brought many cats home from the prison as kittens, and kept them in a kitten pen. Of course, by the time it came to home them, I was unable to part with them. So now I have 9 ex feral prison cats and Buster!
How old are you now? 80, I had my birthday in June. Have you considered ever stopping? I said I would retire when I reached 80 but I have changed my mind. I was struggling with my bad ankle and Val arranged a rota with some volunteers so that someone goes down with me every day so I don't have to worry about falling down. They do the feeding and I sit in the car sometimes. Do you ever get a day off? Until recently I went every day, Christmas day and Boxing Day as well. But now I get the weekends off which gives me a bit of a break So it is possible to give feral cats a permanent home? The younger you can get them the greater the chance you have socialising them.
Has the neutering program been effective? Oh yes. There are much less cats now than there used to be. I used to feed up to 30 cats. Now there are around 15 to 20. Over the years cats have died and there are fewer kittens. Although a civilian workman did find a 10 day old kitten wandering around in the grass a few months ago. Eventually it was handed over to us. Sarah, who helps me with the cats has decided to keep it. A lot of the cats have been trapped and neutered now and there are only 1 or 2 now that have slipped through the nets. The RSPCA have done up to 20 cats for us.
How can you tell if a cat has been neutered? What happens is that the vet will just clip off the top of an ear so that we can tell which ones have been done after they get released. So you have help with the ferals? Yes, recently I have had help with the prison cats because my ankle has been so bad and I have trouble walking and a habit of falling over. One day one of the inmates came to help me feed the cats, as I was thanking him, I slipped and fell over and cut my head. All of a sudden five inmates rushed over to my aide. One of the prison officers then took me down to the medical centre where they dressed my head. They wouldn't let me drive home and sent me home in a taxi as they thought I may have concussion, but I didn't.
The prison is an open prison then, do the inmates help you with the cats? Not really but they are interested and come and ask me questions You must have got to know the cats quite well after all these years? Oh yes, when we drive up, we pass the car park to get to the farm. As we go pass, the cats see the car and they all come running after us. And on the way back they all come running out to meet us. Do you have any favourite cats? There are some we can touch, one I call Mommies Boy and another I call Tibs. I feed the cats at two places, at the farm and at the second place there is one little cat called Mommy, because she has had several litters of kittens and she sits there waiting for us every day good as gold as soon as you put food down she comes trotting out. You can't touch her yet as she is so nervous.
If there was one thing that could be done to help the cats most what would it be? To give them shelter really. There is not really anywhere for them to go. At the farm there are one or two buildings that they can get into but that's about it. Where we feed them at the bore hole there is nowhere for them to go. How do they find shelter then? They seem to find their own little communities and there are always the same ones in the same group, five at the car park, seven or eight at the farm. They have their own little colony and they never stray from one to the other.
How can members of the public help you? They can give donations to help buy food or they can donate food at Abbey vets, at the farm or at Tesco's. I use nine tins of food a day which is quite a lot..
What's the hardest part? When the cats die. The cats aren't treated or vaccinated and they can get ill very quickly. It is very sad. I don't like it when I don't see them. And what's the best part? Seeing them all running towards the car when we go down welcoming us. They all know who we are and why we are down there and they come running toward us.
That's the best bit, just seeing them.
THOUGHTS OF A FERAL
I sit beneath the bushes as she fills my dish each day,
I only venture out to eat when she has gone away,
I know it will upset her when I turn away and hide,
As everyday she tries her best to get me on her side.
I wish that I could let her know I do not want to run,
And hope she understands that is nothing she has done.
I'd like to have her stroke me and pat my weary head,
But fear will overcome and I'll run and hide instead,
For all the kindly people who feed the strays each day,
I pray the Lord will care for them as they have cared for me.