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INVERNESS — He was a fixture around Inverness.
For more than 40 years, Clifford Dungleman rode an old bicycle and fed stray cats.
He’d ride around town, stopping at various spots to set out cat food on white paper plates.
Not many knew his name. He was simply known as the Cat Man.
Clifford Dungleman died Nov. 7. He was 90.
“He was a sweet, sweet man,” said Jacquie Hepfer, Inverness City Council member and longtime Inverness resident. “After his wife died, he was really lonely and he took his loneliness and directed it toward ‘his’ cats. He used to say, ‘If I don’t feed them, they’d starve, and it’s not their fault.’”
She said every time he’d see her he’d say, “Hi lady,” and she’d reply, “Hi Cat Man.”
In 2010, Dungleman became the target of controversy in the downtown area. Citrus County Animal Control cited him for feeding feral cats, violating a county ordinance. County Judge Mark Yerman ordered him to pay $123 and told him to never feed the cats again and if he did and got caught, the fine would be doubled and he could go to jail.
Outraged animal lovers took up his cause and news of his plight spread across Facebook. Local members of the No-Kill Nation organization paid Dungleman’s fine, and the whole incident sparked a debate over what to do with feral cats.
Dungleman was lauded by animal lovers and vilified by local business people in the downtown area who felt the cats were overrunning the town.
Meanwhile, the Cat Man quietly rode his bike around town, twice a day, morning and late afternoon, feeding his cats.
“He spent everything he had to feed those cats,” said Frances Evans, member of the Humanitarians of Florida. “He ate hardly anything himself. Everything went to his animals.”
For years and years, people at the old fish market on Pine Avenue and Dampier Street used to feed the cats. When the fish market closed, Dungleman started feeding those cats too, and their many, many, many offspring.
“One of the local vets trapped quite a few of them and spayed and neutered them,” Evans said. “For a long time Mr. Dungleman thought if we trapped a cat we killed it. He didn’t understand that we were putting them back, and he would hinder us from doing it. We finally got him to understand.”
She said he was skeptical, but he watched them trap a few.
“He’d say, ‘You will bring them back,’ and we’d say, ‘Yes. Come back tomorrow and you’ll see that we’ll bring them back.’ And he was there,” Evans said. He could be very cranky, very obstinate, but he had a heart of gold.”
Jennifer Rogers Ouellette called him “my Cliff.” She met him in Big Lots seven years ago and he became part of her family.
“He had no family nearby,” she said. “His little trailer was so drafty … we gave him electric blankets and a portable heater and wool socks — anything to keep his frail little body warm without him having an electric bill greater than his entire month’s income.”
Ouellette, whose family owns Prestige Court Reporting on Osceola, put Dungleman on their payroll, paying him for odd jobs he did for them.
She added that everyone should have their own Cliff.
“We could make our own hometown a little better. Forget the whole world. Start small and it will grow.”
In the past few months, the health of the town’s Cat Man’s started declining. He went out on his rounds when he could, but increasingly he couldn’t. Evans said volunteers from the Humanitarians have been taking over where he left off and will continue.
“A lot of people think these cats carry disease, but they don’t,” Evans said. “We give them rabies shots and check on them and trap any that are sick. Actually, they’re very healthy when they’re fed, and when they’re fed they’re not getting into dumpsters and people’s garbage, and they’re not bothering people on the street.
“Mr. Dungleman lived for his cats,” Evans said. “That’s how he got the name Cat Man.”
Chronicle reporter Nancy Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-564-2927.