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Longtime cat rescuer falls on hard times

DUNBAR, W.Va. -- Cat lover Martha Webb has opened her Dunbar home as a sanctuary for hundreds of homeless felines over the last decade.

She's spent thousands paying off her cats' veterinary bills and donating to no-kill shelters. She's completely tamed some feral cats, which is a challenge even for experienced cat trainers. And she's kept a clean home despite housing more than 30 cats at any given time with her companion, Michael Fletcher.

The past two years, however, have been particularly bleak for the usually energetic Webb, 62.

She was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer in August 2011 and finished a round of chemotherapy in February. Fletcher, her companion of 12 years, also learned he had cancer in March. By June, he died in a Charleston hospice.

Now Webb's health is starting to falter again. She was just in the hospital for masses found on her thyroid, she said. It's nearly impossible to keep up with the responsibilities of housing so many cats.

"I just want to find homes for them all because my health is not good right now and I can't continue," Webb said. "The way it is now I have to get up every morning and feed them all, and there's lots of little boxes to scoop -- and of course that's not good for my health."

Webb has 31 cats living in her home, garage and outside enclosure. She's asking anyone looking for well-behaved older cats to adopt one of hers.

"I have one that is going blind and needs drops in her eyes, but I've run out of them and can't afford to get more," Webb said.

But she refuses to let the cats go to the Kanawha County Animal Shelter for fear many of the sick ones would be put to sleep. If the rest weren't adopted out then they would be put down too, she said.

That's why Webb supports Colena Martin, owner of Hearts From Heaven Animal Rescue in Ripley. Martin runs a no-kill sanctuary and farm with more than 30 cats and dogs from Jackson County.

"[Webb] has been my biggest supporter over the years and I just want to help her out now," Martin said.

Martin said Webb and Fletcher bought her a new van, paid her property taxes a few times and donated money for food and veterinary care over the years.

Webb said that money has gotten tighter since Fletcher passed, and the cats are starting to take over the house.

Overlooking the Kanawha River, Webb's home is a cat's playground with tall scratching posts, an outdoor enclosure and lines of string dangling from the ceiling.

She began trapping cats and adopting them out a decade ago, and pretty soon people would leave cats on her doorstep or bring them to her to raise.

Rescuing cats became Webb's labor of love, and she was satisfied knowing that she had saved so many from being put to sleep.

She soon sparred with neighbors over the number of cats she keeps, but she went on to form a nonprofit organization, the West Virginia Feline League.

Martin said her priority is making sure that Webb, her biggest supporter, finds some support herself.

"We need someone to give these cats homes who are going to love and care for them as much as [Webb] has," she said.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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