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Public Opinion Polls: A Resource Guide to Count On

Most of the questions you ask while assessing conditions in your community can be answered with a quick review of your shelter's policies, a little time looking through computer databases and old filing cabinets, and a few calls to local government agencies for data regarding public-health concerns.

But you'll need to invest a little more time and effort to determine the views of the people in your community. Its a step that's necessary not only to make sure you're on target, but also to make sure you can gather the public support that's so crucial when lobbying for effective animal-control laws and raising funds to address the problems.

Poll Ahead of the Pack

You can obtain an objective appraisal of the public's view of the "cat issue" by hiring a private polling organization. The results may strengthen your resolve to continue on the current course, change your perception of the issues entirely, or perhaps just alter your direction slightly. The last result was precisely the effect of a survey designed by Belinda Lewis and her staff at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Animal Care and Control (FWACC), who decided it was time to take a closer look at the problem of feral cats in the community.

"We started to see the numbers of cats and dogs go down in the early eighties as a result of overpopulation control programs being instituted," says Lewis, the agency's director. "Our citizen's advisory commission was excited about it and patted us on the backs for what a great job we were doing. But after driving home from the shelter a few evenings, I noticed that every car I passed had little cat eyes peering out from under it. I realized that even though our shelter numbers were going down, we weren't solving the problem."

The shelter's trap-and-euthanize protocol for feral cats in the area was apparently failing, but workers weren't sure why. So the agency went to the community and asked some questions. "One of the really interesting points that came out of our customer-use opinion survey was that people answered 'Yes' to the question, 'Have you trapped out all of the animals in the area?' and 'Yes' to the question, 'Are there still more cats left?'" says Lewis. "So all of these years [people had been] coming into the building and saying it was successful, and we'd never asked them, 'Are there any cats left?'" Apparently people had mistakenly thought that once the problems subsided, live-trapping was no longer necessary. Workers now make sure that citizens continue the program until the population of animals reaches zero.

FWACC also eliminated the trap-rental deposit after finding out that many residents in the inner city could not afford the deposit. Since the agency enacted these changes, the number of cats trapped has increased by 337 percent.

That Explains That

Survey results helped the Peninsula Humane Society (PHS) focus its ongoing programs in San Mateo, California. A few years ago, shelter workers found that the number of kittens coming through the doors was significantly higher than the number of dogs, presumably because cat owners were less likely to sterilize their animals than were dog owners. But before launching a campaign to correct the inequity, the shelter polled pet owners in the community. Surprisingly enough, the results indicated that only 64 percent of the dogs in the community were sterilized whereas nearly 90 percent of the owned cats in the community were sterilized. Why were kittens still coming to the shelter front counter? Apparently the cats contributing to the problem were not owned cats, but rather the large number of unowned or "quasi-owned" cats roaming the community.

So PHS continued to encourage cat owners to bring their pets to its spay/neuter clinic, but also focused on licensing legislation that would require people to claim ownership of "quasi-owned" animals. At the same time, the shelter offered free ID tags to people who took strays into their homes, and appealed to these new pet owners to have their animals sterilized.

Playing the Numbers

The Hawaiian Humane Society (HHS) on the island of Oahu began its efforts to address cat overpopulation with a simple question: "Are stray cats a serious problem on this island?" It was the first in a long list of questions that the shelter posed to residents in an attempt to gather information regarding prospective legislation and policy changes that might help end the stray cat problem. The results?

"The community said overwhelmingly that cats should wear identification, and owners should be responsible," says Pamela Burns, president of HHS. "But we also asked the community another important question: 'The humane society receives 20,000 cats a year and a certain number are adopted and a certain number are returned to their owners, but what should we do with the other 16,000? Euthanize them? Care for them indefinitely? Or let them run loose?'" Surprisingly, seventy percent of those surveyed said that euthanasia was the most appropriate solution.

More importantly, the survey results were invaluable in HHS's push for cat-control laws. "When we went to the city council for legislation, a very small but vocal group came out, opposed to identification, sterilization, even stray-holding periods," says Burns. "But the professional marketing surveys indicated what the community as a whole thought about cats, that there was a problem, and that owners should have some controls placed on them. That information was very valuable." So not only did the survey reinforce the shelter's confidence in its current practices, but it also prompted legislative changes regarding microchipping, holding periods, and management of feral cat colonies, all of which have proved effective in recent years.


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