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During the past four years, Kelley’s Kritters, a small trap-neuter-return (TNR) group in Solon, Ohio, has spayed and neutered more than 600 cats through the Cleveland Animal Protective League’s (APL) TNR program. But founder Kelley Neal was in a bind when she was asked to help 12 sickly kittens a friend’s neighbor was trying to care for.
Neal wanted to help, but there was no way she could finance care for all 12. When she brought them to APL in September 2013, she learned about its Foster to Surrender program, which works to keep stray kittens—and a few other high-risk animals—out of the shelter until they’re ready for adoption. Neal says it was the perfect solution for her friend, who was willing to foster the kittens until they could be adopted.
The program started in 2010, when a woman brought a sickly kitten to APL. Staff told her that, sadly, euthanasia was the typical outcome for sick, orphaned, or underage kittens—but explained that they were interested in trying something new. Would she foster the kitten for two weeks? She would receive all supplies (including food, litter, litter box, and medication) to care for the kitten until her symptoms cleared and she was old enough for adoption.
The woman was willing to help, so rather than impounding the 6-week-old kitten, APL examined, vaccinated, dewormed, FeLV/FIV tested, and prescribed medication for her, and then sent the pair home.
Ayse Dunlap, APL’s director of operations, says that when people confront the enormity of pet overpopulation, they can’t imagine being able to make a difference. But they can imagine helping animals they’ve met face to face. Not only are they willing to take them on, says Dunlap, but the majority of people pay for the food and litter themselves.
Dunlap says that staff resisted the program at first. Trust was an issue, since there’s no application or training for foster-to-surrender participants. (APL’s regular foster program participants, in contrast, fill out questionnaires, attend orientations, and receive training.)
APL also hadn’t anticipated that, if the program worked, the shelter would end up with more animals needing placement. APL had expected that most fosterers would eventually decide to adopt their charges, but that wasn’t the case. So when many of the program kittens started filtering back into the shelter along with an increased number of additional cats and kittens coming in through the usual channels, it was bursting at the seams.
In response, in June 2012, APL had a huge adoption promotion, “The Kittens are Coming, the Kittens are Coming!!!” For the first time in APL’s history, adoption fees for kittens were reduced to $10; for cats older than 1 year, $5 (regular adoption fees are $95 for kittens and $45 for adult cats). In two days, 135 kittens and 35 adults got adopted.
In the wake of the program and vigorous adoption promotions, the adoption rate for kittens in the program rose to 76 percent in 2012 from the initial rate of 57 percent when the program started in 2010. The euthanasia rate dropped to 4 percent, down from 16. While there are still some kittens who are never returned to APL (down to 14 percent from the 2010 rate of 20 percent), APL hopes to further decrease that number by calling people the day after they miss their kitten’s return date and until they respond.
In 2013, APL adopted a strategy known as fast-tracking, which has allowed it to move kittens through at a much more steady rate, making a huge promotion like “The Kittens are Coming” unnecessary.
APL hopes to make the most of the program by encouraging participants to find homes for their foster animals. It’s also considering other animal populations that can be helped by similar programs.
The program has helped lift the emotional burden of euthanasia and allowed staff to see the community as a resource. “It sort of renews their faith in people,” says Dunlap. “… I just think the impact that it’s had on the staff has been tremendous."