April 4, 2010 in Idaho Voices

Alley tallies grow

Cat population straining shelters
Jacob Livingston jackliverpoole@yahoo.com
 
Kathy Plonka photo

kathypl@spokesman.com These two cats were recently left in a box with this note on the front steps of Hayden Pet Medical Center. They have been placed with a family, but animal advocates say the county is crawling with thousands of stray and castoff cats.
(Full-size photo)

“I’m sorry,” the hand-scrawled note began.

The anonymous message, placed on top of a rubber container, was left on the doorstep of the Hayden Pet Medical Center sometime during a recent weekend. From inside the box, the muffled cries of two 8-month-old kittens could be heard as staff members from the pet center read over the note.

Offering a brief summary with a noticeably cared-for tone, the note went on to describe the emerging personalities of the white and gray Bengal-mix cats, brother Otho and sister Sadie. They don’t get along with other cats right away but love children. They are very nice but neither is fixed. They can be shy and just need a couple days to get comfortable in a new home. And they love to cuddle.

At the end of the letter, there was a request: “Please find them a good family.”

The letter was an all-too-familiar reminder for veterinarian Kendall Bodkin and his staff of the stray and feral cat situation in Kootenai and Bonner counties. The combination of people hard-hit by the economy and not having cat-specific laws in place has made it harder for animal owners to care for their pets, and even harder for cats looking for a home. Animal advocates estimate there are thousands of wild and abandoned cats wandering the alleys and parks in the Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls and Sandpoint areas.

“We see this quite often,” Bodkin said. Sometimes the drop-offs come with a note; more often they do not.

A yearly cycle

Every year, the issue resurfaces. As the winter weather wears off, the feline numbers start to increase, with some neighborhoods crawling with cats.

“It’s a huge problem throughout the entire county,” said Karen Williams, lead officer with Kootenai County Animal Control. “There are just pockets (of stray and feral cat populations) all over the place.”

The only laws in the county specific to cats are for situations involving animal cruelty. Because city and county laws don’t identify them in the same way as other domestic animals such as dogs, with licenses governed by Kootenai County ordinances, local law enforcement agencies say they have no legal muscle to deal with cat complaints.

With the way current laws are worded, “they are just allowed to roam at large,” Williams said.

Cats can reproduce at remarkable speed, producing as many as six kittens in a litter and generating two litters a year. With their ability to reproduce, cat overpopulation is a big problem in many communities, according to Kootenai Humane Society Executive Director Phil Morgan.

“It’s crazy everywhere. Stray cats – because they populate so much quicker than dogs – are a real problem,” said Morgan, who also serves in the same position at the Panhandle Animal Shelter north of Sandpoint. He added that the offspring from two adult cats can swell to 400,000 over the roughly 10-year breeding lifetime of those cats.

Because of the warmer winter cycle, this year will result in more breeding time for the animals, with females normally reproducing twice a year but possibly adding another litter in 2010, Morgan said.

Problem ‘getting progressively worse’

Previous efforts to mandate cat licensing or make laws prohibiting owners from allowing cats to wander have fallen flat, either because of a lack of funding or insufficient manpower to enforce such a city- or countywide ordinance. A proposed multimillion-dollar county animal shelter where residents could drop off the animals never went beyond the initial research phase.

Yet the problem persists. Local police departments, including Post Falls and the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department, field numerous calls about cats every day.

“It’s getting progressively worse,” Williams said. And as for animal owners or people who find wayward cats on their property and want to take them to a facility, “There are just not many options in the area,” she said.

The reasons for the overcrowding are varied, those interviewed say, ranging from a lack of public education on the importance of spay and neuter programs to environments that perpetuate the problem to inaction on the part of city and county agencies.

“Cats were wild to start with, we domesticated them and now we’re kind of expecting them to be wild again,” the humane society’s Morgan said. “It’s not effective and it’s not fair.”

During the peak of summer, the no-kill Kootenai Humane Society far exceeds its recommended animal occupancies. The facility, which can only legally accept owner-surrendered animals, comfortably houses roughly 75 cats and dogs. But in August, that number swells to as many as 145 cats, with several hundred on a waiting list until room becomes available at the shelter, which can sometimes take months. Morgan said the number of wild and castoff cats in Sandpoint has also increased, and the Panhandle Animal Shelter has also seen more pets brought in.

In the meantime, Morgan’s only advice is to take the animal home and hope space opens up at the Humane Society.

Veterinary clinics offer a bit of help

To help combat the overpopulation situation, area veterinary clinics have provided free spay days for the last two years, an event where anyone can bring in a stray or wild cat and have it fixed, with one ear of the sterilized animals clipped so they can be easily distinguished from nonfixed cats. Last year, more than 350 cats were treated. In late March, another spay event was put on by four local clinics, fixing another 160 cats.

While those events are costly to the veterinary clinics, their impact can be significant and measured on the streets. “It takes a few years, but if you stay at it, it makes a difference in population control,” said Lake City Spay and Neuter Clinic veterinarian Amoreena Sijan, who coordinated the free spay and neuter day in 2009.

“The clinics help, but they are not the solution,” said Hayden Pet Medical Center’s Bodkin.

Since neither Kootenai County nor Bonner County have shelters to deal with roaming animals, some people have turned to Washington agencies for help.

Nancy Hill, director of the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service, said she receives frequent phone calls and personal appeals from Idahoans with stray cats. The shelter, which first began a cat licensing program in 1991 because they were handling more cats than dogs, doesn’t accept animals from outside the county.

Spokane County licensing program pays off

Though cat licensing has been in place for almost 20 years, the success of the program is only now coming to fruition, with fewer felines being captured in Spokane County neighborhoods, aided by aggressive spay-neuter programs, too, Hill said. The licenses come in several forms, and $4 from each license goes toward spay and neuter vouchers that can be used at veterinary sites throughout Spokane Valley.

“It’s taken a while but we’re just starting to see a difference,” Hill said, citing just a 2 percent increase in stray and feral cats captured in 2009 compared to the previous year. A trap-neuter-release plan, commonly used in many larger metropolitan areas, has helped cut down the feral population as well. “So we’re getting a handle on things,” she added.

Many animal advocates in North Idaho believe the county needs a shelter for stray and castoff cats or missing pets. Public education is a part of the answer, too, those interviewed say, as are the low-cost spay and neuter programs.

“(A shelter) is something we really need,” said Williams of the county’s animal control unit.

Adopting a licensing program similar to Spokane County’s might also help, she added, but it would have to be countywide to be properly enforced. “The money we initially spend is going to be hard, but it will pay for itself,” she said. “In the end, it’s got to be beneficial for both the animals and people.”

Commenting on the prospect of a licensing program, Morgan also cited the importance of enacting a countywide ordinance. “It’s been a real slippery slope on who’s going to do it first? And how are we going to handle it? It’s been better to not deal with it,” he said.

As for Otho and Sadie, they are fortunate. Through an employee at the Hayden Pet Medical Center, they are headed for caring homes and new families, just as the previous owner had hoped.

For countless other cats, however, the wait continues. Wiggling his opposable thumbs, Morgan said, “We have these, we’re in charge. As humans, we have to do something about it.”

Reach correspondent Jacob Livingston by e-mail at jackliverpoole@yahoo.com.

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