Day At The Track

The 'cat ladies' of Gaitway

07:51 AM 21 Dec 2017 NZDT
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Feral cats at Gaitway Farm
Feral cats at Gaitway Farm
Ken Weingartner Photo

Trenton, NJ --- The sound of a 2006 Chevy Malibu can be heard roaring along the drive and, suddenly, a bevy of cats emerge from seemingly everywhere to greet the driver. It’s meal time for the felines at harness racing's training center Gaitway Farm in New Jersey.

The vehicle’s passengers are Marion Sumpf and Liz Horvath, both known for their work as caretakers, who have been guardian angels for feral cats at the farm for the past eight years, as well as the now defunct Showplace Farms. Marion has retired recently and Liz is on disability.

The two are currently feeding 28 cats that have either been dumped off or just appeared at the farm. Rather than take them to a shelter, where they would perish if not adopted, they look out for them. Since ferals do not get along with humans, most of the cats hide in the trees and brush at the end of the back barn.

But they wait for the humming of that specific engine.

USTA/Ken Weingartner photo
Marion Sumpf and Liz Horvath have been guardian angels for feral cats at Gaitway Farm for the past eight years.

“It’s amazing, they know the sound of my car and they all come running like a herd of elephants,” Sumpf said. “It’s pretty cool.

“They learn to know who feeds them. It’s not me that they like. There’s a few I can pick up and pet, but the majority are pretty scared. They’ll come when the food is down but as soon as you try to pet them or something, they’re gone. They come right back when I back off. They’re associated with the sound of this car. ‘Oh, here comes the food person, it’s time to eat, let’s rock.’ They come from every corner.”

But as much as they like the food, most don’t care to show thanks.

“You’re not going to grab them and play with them,” said Sumpf, who worked as a groom at Ron Burke’s stable before retiring. “We may have a few like that, but the majority you can’t pet them and carry on or you’re liable to have cut marks.”

Sumpf and Horvath don’t do it to be loved. They do it because they feel it’s the right thing to keep these animals alive and healthy. Part of that is to make sure they don’t multiply and, over the years, have paid out of their own pockets to have them neutered and spayed.

Fortunately, they have had help. A few years ago Gaitway paid to have a dozen fixed. Trainers and grooms at the farm have supplied food; remnants of grocery store rotisserie chickens are a favorite with the feline set. Several grooms and trainers on the farm have donated money; Dr. Patty Hogan ran a youth clinic at her clinic and in lieu of tuition, each attendee was asked to bring cat food that was donated to the cause; and an equine veterinarian who requests anonymity helps out by neutering male cats free of charge.

But with so many animals, ranging from kittens on up, a big financial burden still falls on Sumpf and Horvath, who refuse to let the cats suffer or perish.

“We’ve been doing it just because somebody needs to do it,” Sumpf said. “There’s always the people that say, ‘Phooey on them, just drown them or whatever.’ That’s just normal, sadly. But they don’t go a day without getting fed. They get canned food and dry cat food every day.”

While at Showplace, the farm manager kept tabs on the cats and would let the women know whenever a new one came along. At Gaitway it has been more of a team effort, which it needed, as the farm was over-run with cats when Sumpf and Horvath arrived.

They managed to track them and get them fixed to put a hold on reproduction; but cats still show up out of nowhere.

“A lot of the grooms and some of the trainers will let us know if there’s a cat we don’t recognize that has appeared,” said Sumpf, who has four of the cats from Showplace living with her. While traps are their preferred method of capture, both Horvath and Sumpf have had to resort to netting cats that refuse to come out of barn rafters.

“We’ll round them up and get them fixed,” she says. “Sometimes they’ll help us pay for it. What happens is, if you don’t get a handle on it, you can have one female have four or five litters a year. If you multiply that and they have five kittens, that’s a lot of cats.

“A lot of it has been our money. Gaitway did help us fix a bunch, and different clinics have helped us. But we still have to take them to people, pay the gas and tolls, pay for the food.”

One would think Sumpf would wish to find homes for all the cats to defer her costs; and she has indeed given some away to folks who want them for their farms. But Marion would rather a person’s first choice be to adopt from a shelter, which euthanizes animals if they do not find homes for them after a certain amount of time.

“We ourselves will not take any to be euthanized,” Sumpf said. “There are so many in shelters that are so inexpensive, I would almost rather them go there if they want to adopt one. It’s not that I’m against them adopting from us, but I feel so bad when I look online how many get killed at shelters every year. It drives me nuts.”

Sumpf noted there are several groups in the Millstone, N.J. area -- where she lives -- that do this sort of thing.

“We’re not trying to make an occupation out of this,” she said. “There are just so many of them, it’s just sad. People should just do the right thing; they’d really put a kink in it. At least try to keep them from having more, that’s the whole thing.

“I just think it’s a necessity. If we don’t do it, who’s going to? We’ll keep doing it for as long as we’re around here.”

Anyone wishing to donate funding for spaying and neutering as needed, cat food or gift cards to Tractor Supply, Petco, or any store selling cat food, to this worthy cause can do so by emailing Sumpf and Horvath at

by Rich Fisher, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent

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