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Through the Looking Glass

Take a close look at your shelter’s cat-related programs to make sure they reflect the needs of the community.

When faced with problems such as cat overpopulation, failed adoptions, even the feral cat dilemma, many shelters are quick to follow the lead of other organizations before considering the potential impact of doing so. Indeed, national training conferences, Internet discussion groups, even many of the articles in this magazine detail a host of innovative programs that have met the needs of shelters throughout the country. So it may be tempting to skip the evaluation process and simply adopt cat-licensing legislation passed in another city or purchase a mobile spay/neuter clinic just like the one on display at a national conference. More often than not, that’s a big mistake. After all, if you don’t understand the components of an equation, how can you ever hope to come up with the right answer?


“Many of us in the sheltering community don’t have enough information,” says Pamela Burns, president of the Hawaiian Humane Society (HHS). “We’re so busy trying to keep up with the cats and dogs who are coming in—trying to get them out the door in the right way—that few of us even have the funding or the time to think about the reasons, the community’s attitude toward animals, and how we can change all of it.”

If you climb on the bandwagon without finding out where it’s headed, you may end up going in the wrong direction, says Belinda Lewis, director of Fort Wayne (Ind.) Animal Care and Control (FWACC). “When a member of my staff attends a conference or gets quoted about the success of our efforts, people will call and ask if we can send a copy of our ordinance. They’ll say, ‘I’m going to enact your ordinance, because if we have what you have, we can achieve what you’ve achieved.’ But if they don’t tie in complementary programs that are critical to the law’s being written in the first place, or if the law is unenforceable in their area, it won’t have the impact.”

Worse yet, it may even backfire. Lewis uses the example of an organization that enacts a differential-licensing program without first considering the potential impact on the poor. Such programs require owners of unsterilized animals to pay a higher fee than that for sterilized animals, generally a great policy to encourage spaying and neutering. But if enacted without some sort of spay/neuter assistance in place, differential-licensing programs may price people out of their pets, leaving them to choose between breaking the law or leaving the animal at your shelter.

Look Before You Leap

“You need to go back one step and ask some questions,” says Burns. “What are your intake numbers? Are there shifts in the number of dogs versus cats? Are there shifts in owner–surrenders versus animals trapped and brought in? Those are some of the things to look at before you even consider starting a feral cat sterilization program, for instance.” If you’ve not yet begun recording this information, take some steps to do so: Implement a computerized tracking system or at least establish a paper trail so you can measure intake trends. And think about the characteristics of the community’s human population as well as the animal population, then tailor your programs to make sure they address the primary reasons for animals entering your shelter. Also try to determine how free-roaming animals end up on the streets, so your shelter can help those animals who aren’t even fortunate enough to make it to your front door.

After reviewing its intake statistics and conducting a series of surveys to reveal the community’s concerns, HHS saw that the best way to help cats was to push for legislation that requires identification for cats, requires sterilization of outdoor cats, promotes microchipping, and provides minimum holding periods for stray cats. In the three years since Oahu’s Cat Protection Law was enacted, the number of stray cats brought to the shelter has decreased 22 percent, the number of cats surrendered has gone down 25 percent, and the euthanasia rate has dropped 22 percent. Meanwhile, the number of cats returned to their owners rose from 138 in fiscal year 1995 to 528 in fiscal year 1998.

When Palm Beach County (Fla.) Animal Care and Control took a close look at its intake trends, the findings prompted the agency to get to work on a new program. “We found that eighty percent of the animals coming through our facility were coming from predominantly low-income areas of our county, a fairly small geographic area,” says Director Dennis Moore. “So we started a mobile spay/neuter clinic to go to those areas, address those issues, and get more of the cats in those areas sterilized.”

Answers in the Form of a Question

Before you sit down to consider how best to approach the problems in your community, think about the current conditions:

  • Where are your animals coming from? Rather than pursuing programs based solely on staff perceptions, try to collect data on cat and dog intake trends over the past five, ten, even fifteen years. Categorize intakes as surrendered, returned to shelter, brought in by animal control, trapped by people in the community, dead-on-arrival (DOA), and so on.
  • Why are cats being brought to your shelter? Are surrenders the result of behavior problems? Are most stray cats truly feral, or are they owned cats who were abandoned or who wandered too far from home? Are a large proportion of the DOAs recovered in the same area, perhaps cats who had wandered from a poorly monitored feral cat colony near a dangerous highway?
  • Are there shifts in the types of animals coming to your shelter? Do cats outnumber dogs? Do adult animals outnumber kittens? Do feral cats outnumber owned cats?
  • How has your community’s human population changed? Are people entering your community or leaving? Are people moving into more urban areas or rural areas?
  • Has your shelter taken on an animal control contract in recent years? Have the terms and conditions of the contract been altered recently?
  • How large is the risk of rabies and other zoonotic diseases?
  • Are feral cat rescue groups or feeders increasing in number? Has there been a growth of limited-admission shelters in the area?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you can begin to determine whether or not your shelter’s programs address the issues effectively. When workers at FWACC found that return-to-owner rates for cats were lower than they might have liked, they made some changes. “The animal care workers consistently saw people walking through the cat rooms looking for their lost cat,” says Lewis. “Often we think we probably had their animal at the shelter some time in the previous two weeks. It’s not that people aren’t looking, it’s that they’re looking too late.”

© Cris M. Kelly

The agency has since produced television ads to actively encourage people to look for their lost animals sooner, and local news broadcasts now show pictures of lost animals rather than animals available for adoption. According to Lewis, people have begun calling their friends and neighbors to let them know their animal just made the nightly news. As a result of FWACC’s efforts, the return-to-owner rate is on the rise.

By taking stock of the situation in their community, humane advocates in Kenosha, Wisconsin, were able to prioritize their efforts to address the cat overpopulation problem. Staff at the Kenosha Humane Society (KHS) saw more stray cats in the community and received more complaints of cats using sandboxes as litter boxes and spraying basement windows, garbage cans, and car tires.

The shelter considered lobbying for legislation requiring both licensing and mandatory sterilization of all owned cats, but chose to limit the scope of the ordinance. “We decided to start with the licensing program so we could identify the difference between feral cats, stray cats, and owned cats before we began trapping animals,” says Jeff Warnock, KHS’s president.

The licensing law was passed in November, and the ordinance went into effect in January of this year. Since then, people have been requesting live traps more frequently, knowing that if owned cats were inadvertently trapped, the animals would be quickly returned to their homes. Shelter staff also hold all stray animals for seven days, look through “lost pets” listings in local papers, and even place “found” notices in the same papers to return any wayward felines.

Nine months later, the number of licensed cats has yet to meet the shelter’s expectations, but thanks to the licensing program and the introduction of microchipping, more animals are being returned to their homes; meanwhile, the number of feral and stray cats being brought to the shelter is also on the rise, thanks to greater community involvement. And a provision for mandatory sterilization of every cat in the community is next on the legislative slate.

Even in communities where cat overpopulation is not the primary concern, shelters can still move forward by focusing on the needs of the area they serve. In affluent Marin County, California, most pet owners see to it that their animals are sterilized. Still, many allow their cats outdoors. So while the Marin Humane Society (MHS) is fortunate that relatively few cats come through its doors, the animals often stay longer. To make the animals more comfortable and to minimize the spread of disease, MHS purchased larger stainless-steel cages with shelves and installed a new air-circulation system.

Look Both Ways First

To evaluate the programs and practices of your shelter, and find out if you’re doing all you can for the cats in your community, consider the following questions:

  • Is your holding period for stray cats as long as that for dogs? (Longer holding periods for stray cats introduce some complex problems, proving stressful for feral cats, and limiting the amount of time that more sociable animals can spend in your shelter. But it’s a goal that all shelters should strive for.)
  • Is your cat adoption fee equal to that for dogs? If not, you may be inadvertently sending the message that cats are not worth as much as dogs.
  • Are your spay/neuter efforts directed at both cats and dogs? Do all adopted animals leave your shelter sterilized? Do all wear ID tags?
  • Does your facility have adequate space and the proper cages to shelter cats?
  • If the number of cats coming to your shelter increases over the next few years (a likely prospect), will you be prepared?
  • What programs does your shelter offer to help cats and their owners? Do you offer spay/neuter assistance or behavior programs? Does your shelter work closely with any feral cat caretakers? What policies and procedures are in effect for live-trapping animals?
  • Do your intake/evaluation protocols and adoption standards differ for dogs and cats? Owned animals and stray animals? (Some differences may be justified; for instance, subjecting stray animals to more thorough behavior tests. Other differences may actually detract from your efforts: for instance, if cats who appear to be feral are euthanized immediately, you may be euthanizing socialized cats who are merely frightened, or even lost cats whose owners have not yet begun to search for them.)
  • Are there laws governing stray holding periods, cat licensing, mandatory sterilization of shelter animals, or cat confinement? Are licensing, confinement, and sterilization laws well enforced?
  • How successful has cat legislation been in your area and nearby communities? Have stray holding periods helped return more animals to their owners? Even if only sparingly enforced, have cat-control laws advanced the educational goals of your shelter?

Once you’ve assessed the problems facing cats in your community and looked at the policies and practices in place behind your shelter’s doors, you’ll be ready to cross the threshold and craft practical solutions for the people and animals you serve.

 

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