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Change for the better in Chico

California shelter strikes gold by limiting cat intake

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2015

Tracy Mohr, animal services manager for Chico, Calif., says the community supports the shelter’s policy of accepting only the neediest cats.The Chico Animal Shelter’s annual cat intake and euthanasia numbers plummeted following a policy change in early 2013.Gina Catallo works with Sam at the Chico shelter. The shelter still takes in sick or injured strays and orphaned kittens, but stopped accepting healthy stray, feral or owner-surrendered cats. A presentation by veterinarian Kate Hurley (above) inspired changes to the cat intake policy at the Chico shelter.

When Tracy Mohr attended a presentation a few years ago by UC Davis veterinarian Kate Hurley about the benefits of shelters limiting their intake of community cats, she remembers thinking, “This sounds great!”

But Mohr, animal services manager for the city of Chico in California, wondered if such a policy change at the city shelter would spark complaints. The city is only mandated to admit stray dogs, yet the shelter had been devoting huge amounts of staff time and taxpayer money to the feeding and care of the nearly 2,000 cats admitted each year. Mohr was mulling changes to the shelter’s cat policies when Hurley visited the region and gave her talk, inspiring Mohr to plow ahead with a radical change: The shelter—previously open-admission—announced that as of February 2013, it would no longer accept healthy stray, feral or owner-surrendered cats.

Two years later, the backlash that Mohr anticipated hasn’t materialized, and the shelter’s cat intake and euthanasia rate have dropped dramatically. People wishing to surrender cats can still do so at a local humane society that partners with the city shelter. While the Chico shelter doesn’t have the budget to provide trap-neuter-return (TNR) for community cats, it encourages caretakers to work with a local TNR group. And it still takes in sick or injured cats and orphaned kittens, as well as any found cat who has an ID tag or microchip.

Chico’s success has surprised even Mohr, who credits support from city officials, local animal welfare groups, people in the community who have grasped the benefits of the new policy and the local media that helped publicize it. “It’s been really great, and I feel like we have the resources we need to do our job, which is huge,” she says.

Partnering for Success

The Chico shelter, which serves a 26-square-mile college town with a population of 87,500, faces a number of challenges. Mohr has a staff of just six, and the city has been plagued by financial problems that have caused budget cuts and layoffs. The first section of the shelter was built in 1956.

“It’s old and funky, and it’s hard to keep clean,” Hurley says.

But Mohr and her staff have displayed a “spunky,” can-do attitude and a willingness to try a new approach, Hurley adds. Because they’re no longer overwhelmed with healthy cats who don’t need aid, they’re able to assist truly needy cats and dogs, such as those with medical issues and those who have lost their colony territory to development, she notes. “That’s been really inspiring.”

For more than two decades, Chico contracted with Butte Humane Society (BHS)—a nonprofit in surrounding Butte County—to run the city shelter. That arrangement ended in 2012, when the city resumed operating the shelter. Mohr had worked as executive director of BHS in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and later as an animal control officer for Chico. She moved to South Carolina in 2010 and briefly changed careers, but when Chico’s animal services manager job became available, the city asked her if she would be interested in applying. She knew the city and the shelter, she and her husband missed living in California and she sensed she’d be able to make a difference. “So that’s why I took the job and came back,” she says.In Mohr’s first year, the shelter followed the guidelines BHS had used, essentially taking in any animal under any circumstances. The shelter experienced the typical summertime spike in its cat and kitten population. Committed to not euthanizing any adoptable felines, the staff filled “every nook and cranny” in the shelter with cats, and worked hard to find foster homes. Some of the Chico shelter’s cats got transferred to BHS, which has a spay/neuter clinic and an adoption facility. But more came in than were transferred, so the city shelter established a limited adoption program for cats.

By her second year, Mohr began evaluating the shelter’s procedures. After seeing Hurley’s presentation, Mohr proposed that BHS take owned cats directly from the people surrendering them, removing the city shelter as middleman. She proposed to her bosses in the city police department that the shelter stop accepting feral cats, and talked to local newspapers and radio stations about the changes. Shelter staff discussed with people who were trapping cats and surrendering them the advantages of TNR over euthanasia. Around the time the city shelter’s policy changed, a local TNR group called Neighborhood Cat Advocates formed. If someone calls with a feral cat issue, the shelter has a resource to refer them to—a key part of making the policy changes work, Mohr says.

“We expected people to be really upset,” Mohr says. “… We were like, ‘Oh, my goodness. What are we gonna do when somebody shows up with a cat in a trap?’” Thankfully, the eruptions never came. Because the shelter staff spread the word about the changes, very few visitors have arrived with trapped cats, Mohr says. When it’s explained that cats can thrive in the community and often don’t need to enter the shelter system, people tend to understand why the shelter prefers TNR.

Trapping and euthanizing is strongly opposed by the vast majority of the public, and is unlikely to decrease community cat numbers long term, notes Betsy McFarland, vice president of Companion Animals for The HSUS. TNR, in contrast, is a humane method that can have a far greater impact on limiting cat populations, reducing wildlife predation and increasing community safety.

The new policy means more work on the front end for staff, who have to explain the options for people who have unwanted cats in their yard, for example, Mohr says. But the trade-off is that fewer cats enter the shelter, and fewer get euthanized—which makes for a happier staff.

“They have to do a lot more public education,” Mohr says, but shelter staff would rather engage people on more proactive solutions like TNR than have to care for scores of cats and kittens and potentially have to euthanize them just because they’re feral.

Cat intake dropped from 1,881 in 2012 to 442 in 2013, and the number euthanized fell from 527 to 88. Half the cats euthanized in 2013 were owner-requested euthanasias; the others were too sick or injured for the shelter to care for.

Moving Beyond

Chico’s changes go beyond those suggested by Hurley’s talk, and she finds the shelter’s results “pretty spectacular.” She thought it made sense for the shelter to redirect feral cats to other groups in the community, since the city has no staff veterinarian to facilitate a neuter-and-return program. Hurley initially thought Mohr might be going too far by not accepting healthy, friendly stray cats who lacked ID, but she came to see that policy as a natural extension of her own ideas.“I was persuaded by her rationale, which she took straight from my talk,” Hurley says. “Basically, she was taking my advice more than I was, recognizing that cats are more than 10 times as likely to be reunited with their owners if they stay where they are than if they come into a shelter.”

Mohr “took what I was saying to its logical conclusion and said, ‘The best way to help these cats is not to bring them into the shelter,’” Hurley says.

The statistics Hurley presented, coupled with Chico’s demographics, spurred the decision to stop taking in healthy stray cats, Mohr says. Chico is essentially a small city with quiet streets and people living close together in small houses and apartment buildings—densely populated, but also conducive to people letting cats outside. Friendly strays in the area are most likely not abandoned—as many finders assume—but are probably owned or neighborhood cats getting fed at one or more homes.

In Mohr’s first year as manager, the shelter had a return-to-owner rate for cats of about 5 percent—higher than the national average, but still terrible, she says. Many people spot a cat roaming in the community and think the best thing to do is to bring her to the shelter. The staff, Mohr says, can explain that other options—asking neighbors, distributing fliers, posting a “found” notice on Craigslist, having the cat scanned for a microchip—are more effective for reuniting cats with their owners.

Hurley believes any shelter could make similar policy changes, provided it checks its contracts or gets the approval of city or county authorities. You don’t need a big media campaign, she adds, but you do need to put forth the idea with real conviction, in a positive but firm way that lets people know that they’re still being served—just not in the same way they’ve been in the past.You shouldn’t simply hang a sign on the door saying you no longer accept cats, Hurley cautions. Instead, emphasize the services you offer, such as referrals to TNR programs elsewhere, a trap-loan program for TNR or information about humanely deterring cats from a property—telling people, in essence, “We’re going to help you, but we recognize it’s just not helpful to take in healthy unowned cats when the outcome is going to be euthanasia or crowding at the shelter,” Hurley says.

Other jurisdictions have contacted Mohr, wanting to know how they can convince their governing body to adopt similar cat policies. One big selling point, Mohr notes, is that if a shelter reduces its cat intake, its costs will go down. Holding cats for five days and euthanizing them is not an effective use of taxpayer money, she argues. “What limited resources we have, we’re going to use them wisely.”

A veteran of nearly 40 years in animal welfare, Mohr says her current job is “probably the one I’ve liked the most, because I feel like we’re making more of an impact.” She’s observed that municipal shelters in particular tend to stick with the open-admission policies that they’ve always known. The lesson of her return to Chico, Mohr says, is that “it doesn’t hurt to try something. … Just because you’ve always done something the same way doesn’t mean that that’s the best way to do it.”

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.