On a cold, snowy afternoon, Jeff Bergstrom and two volunteers at SpokAnimal waited for a plane to arrive.
Standing in a circle in the parking lot of the Signature Flight Support private terminal at Spokane International Airport, the three passed time trading stories about feral cats, raccoons and moose running amok on the South Hill. They kicked and toed at small piles of snow littering the ground and kept warm by shifting their weight every so often.
Then suddenly, coasting out of the sky, Bergstrom spotted it: “Oh, there it is,” he said, turning his head toward the runway. “Right there.”
The plane touching down was no ordinary craft with ordinary passengers. Rather, it was a hollowed-out Wings of Rescue Fairchild Metroliner piloted by volunteers carrying hundreds of kennels full of cats and dogs. The words “We are flying home today” are painted on the side.
As the plane doors open and the pilots hop out, a long line of vans, SUVs and trucks – one even hauling a horse trailer – carrying dozens of animal shelter workers from SpokAnimal, Kootenai Humane Society in Hayden and the Thompson River Animal Care Shelter in Thompson Falls, Montana, line up to accept their precious cargo.
Soon, more than 100 cats and dogs from Memphis, Tennessee, will get spayed and neutered, then put out on the shelter’s version of a sales floor where, with luck, a loving family will take them home.
“I feel like everybody in Spokane must have a dog from Wings of Rescue,” said Ric Browde, Wings of Rescue’s director of logistics.
Transporting animals by air is a process that for many years has transplanted pets from places overrun with them to areas of demand. Last year, Wings of Rescue flew roughly 10,000 pets to new homes across the United States, according to figures on its website. And Browde said easily a third to half of those came to the Inland Northwest.
“Between you and Seattle, that’s probably 90 percent of where our pets go,” Browde said. “SpokAnimal is probably the biggest receiving shelter that I know of in the country. Kootenai is not far behind.”
Most of the pets Wings of Rescue relocates are dogs, many of which come from areas with irresponsible owners, like some in Bakersfield, California. Julie Johnson, the executive director of the City of Bakersfield Animal Care Center, said 3,300 dogs were sent out through programs like Wings of Rescue last year alone.
“We just feel that a lot of these times people don’t mind losing these dogs,” she said. “They just go and get another one.”
Johnson said issues with owners spaying and neutering their animals, coupled with low morale when it comes to looking for a lost pet, have contributed to a low return rate for dogs – about 550 a year compared to the thousands they take in.
Compare that to the Inland Northwest, and it’s no wonder the critters get shipped here. At the Spokane Regional Animal Protection Service (SCRAPS), dogs get returned to their owners about 65 percent of the time, and those that don’t usually end up getting adopted.
At the major animal shelters in the area, workers say they can’t keep a dog for more than a week before it’s adopted. And if it’s a puppy, even sooner. Which is why right after Wings of Rescue or the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals delivers a shipment, they’re already looking forward to the next.
“There’s more people looking for dogs than what we have in our area,” said Alicia Finch, a shelter manager at SpokAnimal.
At the same time that owners in the area can’t get enough dogs, cats seem largely forgotten.
Even as local shelters receive hundreds of felines a year from outside the region, Spokane County’s animal control center is struggling to find homes for the thousands of cats it receives each year as the local animal control agency.
“I’m giving them away at this point,” said Janet Dixon, SCRAPS’ special programs manager. “I don’t know what else to do.”
Unlike a shelter, which can limit the number of cats it takes in – or simply say no to those unlikely to find new homes – SCRAPS has no choice. In the summer months, Dixon said they can receive up to 70 cats a day, either from people bringing in a litter they found on the side of the road or from people who can no longer – or don’t want to – take care of them anymore.
Cats also have an abysmal return-to-owner rate compared to dogs in the county. Of the nearly 5,400 strays turned in last year, only 164 went back to the owner within 30 days – a rate of only 3 percent.
“People get a dog and they think they need to protect it,” Dixon said. “Cats are sort of independent by nature, so they think they’ll let it out by night. But these are not wild cats – they’re home cats.”
Which is why SCRAPS sends what animals they can to the West Side of the state. About once a week, they’ll load a vehicle with about 30 kennels and send it to Seattle and the surrounding areas, where cat ownership is taken more seriously – either because of more responsible ownership, tighter rules and regulations, or a combination.
“There are lots of places there that take these animals,” she said. “But in the summer we’re all in the same boat. We’re all drowning in cats.”
Not all of SCRAPS’ felines receive this fate. While the agency was able to release about 3,600 through adoption, transfers or returns to owners, 1,881 of them were euthanized.
It’s normal for shelters and animal control agencies to euthanize because an animal becomes too sick or it has severe behavioral issues, or because the owner requested it – usually because the pet is terminally ill or in pain.
But at SCRAPS, much of the feline euthanasia is a result of cats being too stressed and becoming sick as a result. And because there just isn’t enough room.
“We do, unfortunately, as a last resort. It’s not common but it does have to happen,” Dixon said. “Of course, it doesn’t help to have people bringing in more and more of these animals that end up here.”
Shelter workers attribute Spokane’s hunger for dogs to campaigns started by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a national nonprofit organization that sends grant money and help to local shelters in need.
Randi Oien, the shelter manager for Spokane Humane Society, said as few as 10 years ago Spokane wasn’t all that different from Bakersfield and that owners weren’t spaying and neutering their dogs.
But that changed when shelters started waiving adoption fees or offering low-cost spaying and neutering, which were not seen as best practices for finding a good home for a pet.
“They presented a lot of cutting-edge ideas surrounding animal welfare,” she said.
It begs the question: Why dogs and not cats? It’s not a local issue, either, as cat-return rates hover around 3 percent nationally.
Nancy Hill, the director of SCRAPS, believes it’s because people don’t take cat ownership quite as seriously. She said many cat owners get them as a first pet, or let them wander outside at night – all the while not getting them fixed.
To try to empty the coffers before summer, for the month of March SCRAPS will waive the adoption fee for any feline 6 months or older. All the prospective owners have to pay is $15 to get the pet licensed.
“We need to make sure all the fluffies at SCRAPS get adopted,” Dixon said. “We’re getting these cats out as fast as humanly possible.”
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