Best Friends Blog

Cats of the Chesapeake: On stranger tides

A few years back 74-year-old James D. “Donnie” Crockett drowned when his boat capsized during high winds  and in rough waters on Chesapeake Bay. Crockett was making his way back home to Tangier Island after taking Spotty, one the many community cats that he cared for, to a mainland vet to be spayed. Crockett, like most of the residents on the island, was an experienced waterman and crabber and, also like most, appreciated the presence of the cats and did what he could to look after them, getting them fixed as his resources allowed. Sadly, 58-knot winds and unusually high seas claimed Donnie and Spotty, but Donnie is fondly remembered by friends and neighbors who share his affection for Tangier’s cats.

Enter Best Friends Animal Society’s Community Animal Assistance (CAA) team and Community Cat Program.  After Donnie’s death, several residents contacted Best Friends to ask for help  with the feral cat population on Tangier Island.

Tangier Island is a picturesque, three-mile-by-one-mile strip of land in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, about 18 miles from the mainland. The first European to set foot on Tangier was Captain John Smith, better known for having been saved by Pocahontas.  In fact, most of the island’s 525 human residents can trace their ancestry back to colonial America when John Crockett, a likely ancestor of Donnie, first settled the island in 1686. Locals still speak a unique dialect that echoes the language of Restoration England circa 1680.

There is no record of when the first cat arrived, but the island is home to almost as many cats as people. About 400 felines call the island home, and residents and visitors felt it was time to stabilize the population with a little bit of trap/neuter/return (TNR) so a call went out to Best Friends.

Robin Politowitz, a CAA senior specialist, spent the next several months hammering out the very complicated logistics of getting the cats fixed on the relatively remote island with no veterinary resources. That meant not only making plans to get the Best Friends team out to Tangier, but recruiting all the medical professionals and hands-on volunteers, as well as rounding up the necessary medical equipment to perform hundreds of surgeries.

Earlier this month, Best Friends’ Shelly Kotter (pictured below), the team and numerous volunteers arrived on tiny Tangier Island along with a crew from Operation Catnip in Gainesville,  Florida, and a group of volunteer veterinarians led by Dr. Newman and Dr. Reiss from Caring Hands Animal Hospital in Virginia. Their goal was to fix as many cats in a week as they could round up.

Shelly went door to door to get information about the island’s free-roaming cats. She heard many cat tales along the way, like the story about the mayor of Tangier (pictured below), a crabber by trade, who was out crabbing following a storm and found four kitties clinging to a floating log. He saved them and now looks after them. And then there’s Jeanne Autry, the late Donnie Crockett’s neighbor and dear friend who took over the care and feeding of Donnie’s colony of a couple of dozen cats after his fateful accident on the bay.

Best Friends’ team took on the job of trapping while the rest of the volunteers, including vets, techs and helpers, set up a makeshift, high-volume spay/neuter clinic, with as many as eight vets working at the peak of operations.  Local kids helped with locating colonies, and despite spring storms and high tides, 250 cats were fixed along with about 3 resident dogs at the request of their owners.  Approximately a dozen cats, mostly unweaned kittens, went home with the volunteers and techs to be placed in loving homes once they are old enough to be spayed or neutered.

Some of the island’s cats had already been fixed, so an estimate of only 50 – 70 remain intact. A follow-up visit is planned for later this year.

Following his passing, someone had this to say about Donnie Crockett on a local Internet forum –  “Donnie was an avid cat lover. He’d always take in stray cats. He believed that was his mission in life here, to take care of the animals.”

Somewhere, Donnie and Spotty are smiling.

Francis Battista
Co-Founder, Best Friends Animal Society

P.S. I also want to acknowledge the invaluable work of Best Friends Community Animal Assistance team and Robin Politowicz in particular who took the lead and did the advance work for the Tangier Island project.

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  • Annemiller55

    Best Friends rocks and so do the people of Tangier.  I hope to visit one day.

  • Angelin1030

    What a great thing.  I only wish that I lived closer so that I could volunteer my time.  Bless you every one!

  • Takatrp

    Thank you guys for ALL you do! What a touching story – made my day! Ive been involved in BF catnippers clinics – its an awesome joy! 🙂

  • Sallylyons


  • Jack Forster

    That is a great group of people on Tangier island, caring so much about their cats and community.  

  • Jackie Griffith

    God bless you Best Friends for all that you do for the helpless animals!! Jackierose

  • Junkfoodkitties

    im all for fixing cats to maintain the population…BUT dosent this mean that EVENTUALLY THERE WILL BE NO MORE CATS?!?!?!    especially on the Island. Do you Think Donnie would appreciate the fact that you are slowly wiping out his beloved cats?

    • Kimntulsa

      Homeless cats abound all over the United States.  It would be wonderful to bring over some of those kitties when the original population does dwindle!  Wouldn’t that be great!!!  And they would already be fixed!  I think that would make Donnie smile to see more beloved cats being rescued & brought to this awesome paradise island!!

  • Jjazzette11

    I have visited Tangier Island. It’s a fun place to go… but very quite. No night life, but a step back in time.

  • Isarembock

    Amazing work for animals that deserve the very best in life!
    You should be proud
    From a huge animal lover in Atlanta Georgia!

  • Bucky

    Thank God for you Best Friends and all the wonderful work you have done-great and small!  The suffering you ended on this tiny island is without measure!  You have long been my hero organization-THANK YOU!

  • Lauriebk

    Love Tangier kitties and Tangier Island– my daughter and I visited about 8 Julys ago, and I recently found a picture of her with a handsome orange tabby male. Hopefully, he’s happily neutered now! A wonderful story…

  • We all do what we can.  I am working for several years now, in the City of Camden, NJ.
    Yes, I think the poorest in the USA.  Cannot begin to say the help that is needed.

    Doing what we can.  So sad.

  • Pam

    You are wonderful people.  Angels, really.  I believe there is a special place in heaven for people who are kind to all animals.  (I believe the opposite place is where the people who are not kind to animals go!)

  • Katnip364

    Been to Tangier – Unique place.  Extremely happy that the islanders came together to “allow” and make this happen.  Ole English spoken here.  A bit of further communication glitch.

    I too live in a similarily remote area with spotchy communication.  We have over 3000 ferals living in the deeply wooded areas of two rural subdivisions.

    With the help of FCNMHP in Jax we are S/N over 40 per month but we desperately need more trappers, traps, transporters, and donations.  We are an all volunteer org – no paid employees and we range in ages of 57-82.

    If anyone can lend us a hand to reach the 70%+ S/N which is required to get any control over this, please contact Bonnie at 386-467-3028

    We extimate that we have over 13,000 all total free roaming and ferals in our area.

    I hope you all get back to Tangier to finish off S/N the cats.  To reach over 70+% on an island should be fairly easy.  Even a mash unit with cold sterilization which is what we had to use when I worked on Vieques.

    • Bucky

      where are you located-I live on Amelia Island part time.

  • Anne

    What a wonderful story!  It makes me wish I could live there with all those beautiful cats.

  • Pam Eskridge

    Awesome work, guys! You have made a difference in our island home as well as the kitty’s lives!

    • Tdfravel

      Pam you must be Dans relative or daughter.   I am a BF volunteer and wish I knew about this.

      Trisha Fravel

  • Emeraldlizard

    Awesome…love that these kitties are being well taken care of! 

  • Sharon Wolfe

    I was visiting the island the week Best Friends were there. Such a dedicated,hardworking bunch of people . Thank heaven for caring folks like them !!

  • Mjbmeister

    Uplifting story of successful TNR and Donnie who was a good man. He had to be. He loved animals.

  • Anonymous

     Wonderful story.

  • linda

    what a caring community. 

  • Michael

    Great stuff.  Found this via a link on Facebook.