Too many cats too few cages – Part One

First in a series looking at the Lincoln County Humane Society

Too many cats too few cages
St. Catharines Standard 2012

Some have names scrawled on pink and blue name tags taped to their cages.

Oreo. Bella. Penelope.

Titles assigned by an animal control officer. A small gesture of respect.

Others are known by description: Orange tabby, scratch on nose. Short hair tortoise shell, bushy tail. Black, short hair.

For some workers, naming a stray cat is just too hard.

Others will become a number in a computer database, their deaths part of a statistic.
– 1,996 stray cats entered the Lincoln County Humane Society in 2010.
– 1,508 didn’t leave alive.
– 27 were euthanized between Monday and Friday last week. For space.

For every cat that enters the shelter, another must leave, one way or another. Wire cages are a commodity that means life or death for a cat in the shelter.

It doesn’t seem fair.

But it’s reality.

“I would love for this to be a no-kill shelter. But there has to be a better solution than turning cats away,” said Britney Boston, an animal care technician at the Lincoln County Humane Society.

Most low- or no-kill shelters will turn animals away if their cages are full. But sometimes, the possibility of euthanasia is better than the alternative.

“People have called us saying they’re going to kill their cat if we don’t take it,” she said. “I would rather them come here.”

Boston is at the shelter three days a week. She’s worked there for five years.

It isn’t an easy job, and one many don’t understand.

“They (the cats) can’t help themselves. The successes make everything worth it,” she said, before slipping her hands into a pair of blue latex gloves.

It’s Monday morning at the Lincoln County Humane Society in St. Catharines. The Standard has been given unprecedented access for the week. Through the five days, cats are taken in, checked by staff and cared for. Others are cuddled by volunteer socializers and adopted.

The purpose of an open admission – also known to some as a high-kill – shelter is apparent. The Lincoln shelter has a euthanasia rate of 70%.

It’s controversial. Potential donors often seek out no- or low-kill shelters, said executive director Kevin Strooband.

And the emotional toll on staff is palpable.

“Try to go through a cat room and have it try to play with you while you decide whether it will live or die,” he said.

Staff are overworked. And while some people visit with adoption or donations in mind, others go in angry. They don’t like the cost of adoptions. They don’t understand why the shelter’s services aren’t free. Some swear and yell at staff.

But it’s all part of the job.

Boston spends her Monday morning pulling soiled litter boxes, newspaper and blankets from each cage. She sprays the metal walls with a cleaning solution to prevent the spread of disease. She refills water and food.

Her blonde hair is twisted into a loose bun on the top of her head. The cats in nearby cages reach for it through the bars as she bends down to wipe the metal surface. One at a time. Only five cages left in the adoption room. But there are four more rooms, most behind a door marked “staff only” with cages stacked against the wall.

Few are empty.

The back rooms are purgatory. Some of the cats there are sick, others are strays who haven’t passed the mandatory three-day waiting period.

And some are healthy. Ready for a home. But space isn’t available in the adoption room.

Once a cat is adopted, a fortunate soul in the back can move forward and take its place.

Trinity, an orange tabby in the adoption room, chatters and reaches out from a corner cage. She catches Boston’s hair in her claws and pulls.

Boston laughs.

“They’re starved for affection,” she said, lifting a grey striped feline from its litter box.

Just as she’s about to start cleaning another cage, a stray cat is carried in.

A hefty orange tabby about three years old sat in a narrow wire cage.

“He’s a big guy,” she said, pulling the meowing cat from his small enclosure.

Not neutered. 6.39 kg. Not microchipped.

She names him Teddy.

“Not too bad, just looks like he’s been in some cat fights,” she said, surveying his face before preparing a booster shot.

Scratches mark Teddy’s face. A small gash runs across his nose. War wounds.

Teddy will be held in a cage at the back until Friday morning. If no one claims him by then, a staff member will decide if he stays in the cage for a while longer in hopes he will eventually move to the adoption room. Or if Teddy is taking up space needed for an incoming cat, he will be euthanized.

Cats at the humane society have a claim rate of less than 1%. Dogs? 65%.

“It’s crazy, because people do call looking for their cats. Just not the cats here,” she said, then shook her head. “Where are the owners of these cats?”

Cat population is a problem.

Like most of the felines that make their way into the shelter, Teddy is not neutered.

And Strooband hopes to change that.

Last year, the Lincoln County Humane Society launched a capital campaign to raise $1.6 million to build a spay and neuter clinic. The total cost for the project is $2.5 million.

In the beginning, the campaign was energized. Government funding announcements were made and the prime minister’s wife, Laureen Harper, visited the shelter.

But after the fanfare dissipated, so did the donations. In the year since, the shelter has raised only $400,000 of its $1.6 million goal.

The clinic has been built, but much of it sits unused, unfunded.

Beyond lack of funds, there is another problem. The humane society employs one veterinarian who visits the shelter two days a week. He spends most of his day spaying and neutering cats. But it isn’t enough.

It’s Tuesday, and Boston is minding the front desk.

A new volunteer is learning to clean cages, but by noon many of the cats still haven’t been given new food and fresh water.

She answers a phone and the person on the line is kind to her. It doesn’t happen very often, she said.

“He said ‘God bless you guys,'” Boston smiled, hanging up the phone. “It means a lot to hear that.”

There’s still a lot of work to do. One feral cat has been euthanized already, but the other has escaped into the ceiling of an adoption room.

Two staff members carefully lift the ceiling tiles. They peer in. The cat is crouched in one corner. It’s feral, so it will likely attack if provoked.

After trying to entice it with food, the staff leave a trap in the ceiling for it.

Two cats in the back rooms have tested positive for distemper. When they go, those cages can’t be used for another 10 days.

Two more cats arrive.

A man has brought in a black feline because its elderly owners can no longer care for it.

Boston tries to lift it from its carrier for an examination. It won’t budge.

“This is the really sad part,” she said. “He doesn’t want to come with me and I don’t blame him.”

Later that evening, the feral cat in the ceiling made its way into the cage. It’s a short-lived, empty victory for staff.