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‘Worst kitten season in years’ explodes after OC stops fixing feral cats

Passionate cat lovers — and, really, there’s no other kind — say it’s like an exhausting game of emotional blackmail.

They drive past needier animal shelters in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino to “pull” animals from Orange County’s state-of-the-art shelter in Tustin. Why? Because the O.C. animals are on what volunteers call the “euth” list — meaning they’re in danger of being put down, often with what volunteers consider easily treatable illnesses like ringworm and respiratory infections. Animals in other shelters, they say, have more time.

“I have not been able to rescue cats from any other shelters but Orange County’s because they’re euthanizing them so fast,” said Leslie Weiss, executive director of Surfcat Rescue and Adoptions in Ventura County.

Protest flyer

An online petition blasting Orange County’s management and practices — aimed at dog as well as cat policies — has gathered nearly 51,000 signatures, and a protest is planned at Orange County Animal Care in Tustin from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 5.

“As animal rescuers during one of the worst kitten seasons in years, we are drowning,” wrote Romina Yamashiro of Santa Ana in a plea to county officials.

“We don’t have enough fosters, vets are overbooked helping us, funds are running awfully low and cats are being euthanized at the hands of OC Animal Care for very simple and easily treatable illnesses.

“OC Animal Care is not helping any of our rescue organizations like they did in the past, pre-COVID,” she wrote. “Where is our tax money going?”

‘Feral freedom’

The crux of the kitty conflict can be traced to a deep freeze on the “feral freedom” program, which spayed and neutered feral cats, provided shots and basic medical care, then released them back to their old turf.

Fixed feral cats can’t reproduce, and over a span of years, that can save thousands of kittens from the euthanasia needle.

OC Animal Care started a pilot program in 2013. In the span of a single year, the cat euthanasia rate dove from 74% of live impounds to 49.5%, according to county data at the time.

A volunteer gives a dirty feral kitten a bath, and hope for a better life. (Photo courtesy Romina Yamashiro)

Myriad studies have found that the practice vastly reduces death. Over an 8-year span, cat euthanasia at Louisville Metro Animal Services plunged by 94.1% — and feline admissions dropped by 42.8% — according to a study published in the journal Animals. A total of 24,697 cats were trapped, sterilized, vaccinated and returned to their turf.

Robust programs like this exist in Riverside County and the cities of Garden Grove, Long Beach and San Diego. San Bernardino Director of Animal Services Kris Watson hopes to get one up and running there as well.

In Orange County, however, the program has been controversial and spurred legal action. It’s inhumane to release companion animals to the streets to fend for themselves, critics charged, saying the shelter was releasing hundreds of healthy, adoptable, nonferal kittens to the streets to boost its live-release rates.

A cease-and-desist letter came in the fall of 2019. As as the pandemic descended in the spring of 2020, the practice stopped. It’s unclear if it will restart.

“This is a leading discussion topic at animal care agencies here and across the nation,” said Monica Schmidt, assistant director of Orange County Animal Care. “We’ve been advised that the release of unowned cats into the community is considered ‘willful abandonment of animals’ and is prohibited.”

The county isn’t taking in healthy animals, but instead concentrating on those most in need — young kittens and sick, injured and/or unhealthy animals, she said.

“We have hundreds of rescue partners, and we look to them when animals need additional care we might not be able to provide, or for behavioral needs,” she said. “National groups say that if you don’t have a robust TNR (trap-neuter-release program) or aren’t legally able to do it, they recommend you not take in healthy stray cats. One reason is that most aren’t true strays. They belong to someone and tend to find their way home.”

That hasn’t, however, been the experience of at least some of those trying to pick up the slack.

Feeding time for a cat colony in Santa Ana. (Photo courtesy Romina Yamashiro)

Overwhelming

There’s a cadre of volunteers who trap, neuter and release cats on their own time and dime.

One, on a property backing up to the Santa Ana River, was caring for more than 50 cats and kittens this week alone — an undertaking that consumes dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars every week. Volunteers feed them, socialize them, clean up after them and pay to get them fixed because the county is no longer doing the surgeries. Kittens are adopted out through rescues; sterilized moms are returned to their territory.

Without the county’s help, it’s like trying to empty the ocean with a juice glass, they say.

“Volunteers who spend their free time and energy trapping for the greater good should not ALSO have to be the ones responsible for applying for (spay and neuter) vouchers AND paying for the extra finances of vaccines and any other basics that every cat should have access to,” Jen Knight of Del Gato Rescue wrote in an email.

“(T)he county of Orange is actively burdening the NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS who lack the funding and resources to provide the volume of vouchers needed by the public rescuers in order to make any real and lasting change.”

The handful of vets who help the rescuers are overwhelmed, and there are long waiting times to get feral cats fixed, Yamashiro said.

This springtime — “kitten season” — is the worst anyone can remember, with people dumping boxes of kittens on curbs because the shelter won’t take them and they don’t know what to do with them.

(Photo courtesy Romina Yamashiro)

“If you think kitten season thus far has been bad, I guarantee that you’ll see the true repercussions next season,” said Erika Rasmussen. “So many little lives will be born only to be euthanized because there’s not going to be enough space or homes for all of them! Disgusting.”

Animal Care has an annual budget of about $23 million and is taking in fewer animals, volunteers note. Some want the operating room opened back up to rescues again. Others say the county should at least offer a mobile clinic at hot spots and do the work. More financial help for private spay and neuter surgeries also would help, others said.

“THIS IS A PUBLIC SAFETY/HEALTH ISSUE,” Knight wrote. “IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE FOR THE COUNTY TO NOT ASSUME RESPONSIBILITY.”

Changes coming

Many cat colony kittens have eye infections and issues, like this one. (Photo courtesy Romina Yamashiro)

Many operational changes are expected in the pandemic’s wake, Schmidt said, including perhaps keeping some sort of appointment system for adoptions, which provides more individual attention and can lead to better matches.

The county doesn’t have the budget to absorb millions of dollars in surgeries, but she hopes to forge common ground with critics.

“We continue to explore our options on what we can provide to the community,” Schmidt said. “We’re open to exploring what we can do going forward. It may include partnering with nonprofits who have different programs in place. I think we need time coming out of the pandemic to take into account legal counsel weighing in on what we can and can’t do, and our budget.”

The county’s stats continue to be quite good — an overall save rate of 96% for dogs and 81% for cats in 2020, she said.

Critics say that’s easier to do when you accept so few animals and lean on rescues so heavily.

In San Bernardino, Watson is sketching out how she might structure a feral freedom program there. It would be different from what O.C. had during her tenure there, she said: She’s able to focus in on a single city, rather than the 14 in OC Animal Care’s orbit, which lends itself to more outreach and connection with individual neighborhoods. The nonprofits in OC that focus on community cats have much more ground to cover, she said.

O.C.’s Schmidt said that the county has hundreds of rescue partners, with as many opinions on how things should work.

“Obviously, animal welfare attracts really passionate folks,” Schmidt said. “Some want to come to the table and find a way to work together. Some come to table and say, ‘You will do XYZ or we will never be happy with you.’ We’re focusing on those who want to work with us and figure out the right programming going forward.”


Source: Orange County Register

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