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Out of the trash can, into the clinic

One dumpster-diving cat inspired Kandi Habeb to help thousands

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2012

Claudia is one of more than 2,250 cats Kandi Habeb’s feral cat group has helped so far, offering services from trap loans and caretaker education to spay/neuter.

The human population of Parkersburg, W.Va., has declined by nearly 5 percent in the last decade, partially because of plant shutdowns and other economic pressures. The community cat population has gone down at the same time, mostly because of Kandi Habeb.

Habeb, a retired office manager, and her husband were leaving a restaurant in the winter of 2004 when she spotted a cat jumping out of the dumpster carrying a chicken bone. “So, as my husband puts it, I ran home, got several cans of cat food, and back I went,” says Habeb. The next day she returned to feed the cat and found there were four kittens, too.

“I knew there were feral cats,” Habeb says, “but I didn’t think we had that many around here. I was just appalled.”

Six months after her dumpster encounter, Habeb founded West Virginia’s first full-service trap-neuter-return service, the Save a Kitty Feral Cat Program. Since then, the group has helped 2,253 cats, providing services from trap loans and caretaker education to spay/neuter.

Habeb’s biggest obstacle at the time was finding veterinary help—none of the local vets seemed to want to work with ferals. She ended up making several trips to the Help for Animals clinic in Barboursville, W.Va.—nearly two hours each way—taking 12 to 15 cats and kittens for sterilization each time. Beginning in August 2008, Save a Kitty was able to afford to bring the clinic’s mobile unit to Belpre, Ohio—over the state line but only a few miles from Parkersburg—and had organized several surgeries there before expensive repairs forced the unit to shut down.

Habeb was devastated, but started looking for a new solution. Although the Rascal Unit out of Columbus, Ohio, was available, it required a minimum of 45 cats to make the trip to Belpre economically worthwhile. Habeb’s group couldn’t initially afford it, but through donations, grants, and larger fundraisers, was finally able to begin bringing cats to the Rascal Unit in the fall of 2009.

The location makes for a nice change from the long drive Habeb once had to make. “It works great. You cross the bridge in downtown Parkersburg and you’re in Belpre in 1.9 miles.”

Feral cat caretakers who request assistance go on a surgery waiting list until Save a Kitty targets their area for spay/neuter. The group then contacts caretakers to complete paperwork, pick up traps, and learn how to use them. On their scheduled day, bright and early, they bring their collected kitties to Belpre.

Save a Kitty currently uses the Rascal Unit two to four times yearly, while a local veterinarian, Leslie Elliott, offers 12 spots weekly at her private practice. “She’s very knowledgeable and brought other vets into her practice recently,” says Habeb. “She’s trained them on spaying and neutering younger cats and kittens. So we actually have three vets helping us through that same practice now.”

When Habeb started Save a Kitty, she had a very small foster network. “We were spending most of our time trying to tame and adopt out kittens in an area that was not adopting,” she says. “So we stepped back and decided to spay and neuter like crazy and maybe start our foster program up years down the road when there’s more need for cats and kittens.”

Save a Kitty and the Humane Society of Parkersburg joined forces. “A lot of my grant reporting has to come from their numbers, and we work closely figuring out intake and euthanasia,” says Habeb. “They give us areas to target where they’re getting a lot of surrenders. … If people call the shelter complaining about cats, the shelter refers the caller to Save a Kitty—every time.”

The shelter has seen good results. “Our cat and kitten intake decreased by 14 percent from 2007 through 2010,” says Maryann Hollis, the shelter’s executive director, noting that the decrease during the busy months of July and August is actually closer to 28 percent.

Summer Wyatt, West Virginia state director for The HSUS, has long been impressed by Habeb’s dedication. “Many people don’t pay attention to feral cats; they consider them pests,” says Wyatt. “Kandi treats these animals as amazing beings who have so much to offer and live for. The cats have reaped the benefits of her efforts in so many ways.”

Habeb’s reducing cat numbers, but increased human numbers are on her side. “The program I started sure wouldn’t be successful if I didn’t thank my volunteers and board members,” says Habeb. “I started it, but I acquired a lot of wonderful people, and they’re as committed as I am. That’s definitely what’s made it work."

About the Author

Nancy Peterson is the former Community Cats Program Manager for the Humane Society of the United States.