Published: May 25, 2011 02:00 AM
Modified: May 24, 2011 11:15 AM
Discussion of animal welfare is one indicator of the importance of companion animals in our communities. Recent discussion of cat care and Orange County Animal Services by Brook Hayes ("Second Class Cats," Chapel Hill News, April 24, 2011) is welcomed.
Animal Services has redoubled its effort to ensure that a cat's experience is as stress free as possible at our open-admission shelter. All but certain infirm cats receive at least one toy to enrich their stay.
Animal Services now also requires scratching posts or something comparable for nearly all cat housing. "Scratchers" move with individual cats and they are available to go to a cat's new home upon adoption. Our hope is that they will provide a thread of continuity for a cat's shelter experience.
We are gratified by the contributions of volunteers and others. Charles House, for instance, is potting "cat grass" for the colony rooms and condos in our cat adoption area. One volunteer made some cat toys that resemble those available from specialty shops.
Animal Services is creating more exercise opportunities for adoptable cats as a result of community conversations about cat care. We have made a "meet and greet" room into an exercise area, and we are encouraging volunteers to take advantage of this area when it is in the best interest of an individual cat. We have not implemented a policy requiring all cats to be taken out of their enclosures daily for exercise. Our policy is consistent with prevailing professional opinion.
We would stress that cats - never "easy keepers" in a shelter - are varied in their inner makeup and tolerance for stress. We would also underscore that infectious disease control must be paramount in the sheltering process. A failing in this area could result in the needless euthanasia of animals.
Shelter statistics are another important measure of any agency's performance, as well as a measure of a community's commitment to animal welfare.
Several reflections are in order before reviewing some specific "cat stats." One is that statistics for public, open-admission animal shelters are disturbing because of the endemic problem of pet overpopulation. Another is that Animal Services is keenly aware of the need to move toward the elimination of euthanasia as an instrument of population control.
Eighteen percent fewer cats (186) were euthanized last year than in 2009. Also, the placement rate for cats was higher last year than the year before (50 percent, up from 46 percent).
Further, last year we admitted 233 fewer cats than the previous year (1,749 versus 1,982). This 12 percent decrease does not have a single cause; however, it is affected by ongoing targeted spay and neuter efforts aimed at dogs and cats in our area. There is a direct correlation between intake numbers and euthanasia rates, and the number of admissions has long-term implications for the housing of shelter cats.
With respect to housing, we are carefully considering the enclosure standards recently set forth by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians in relation to Animal Services as a comprehensive animal services operation. This is as it should be, given that the Animal Services Center supports a number of critical functions. Much the same may be said of the issue of the hours we are open to the public, since staffing is needed not only for sheltering and adoption but for animal control, pet licensing, public information, volunteerism, and other programs.
As professional staff, it is our responsibility to consider the full implications of any programming change. One of the most important of these may be that an increase in the size of cat's primary enclosures entails a significant change in how our shelter population is managed.
Being prepared for any such change (as well as certain of its efficacy) requires thorough knowledge of emergent population management practices and their prerequisites (e.g., skills, instruments, and policies and procedures); whether costs as well as benefits would be associated with these emergent practices; and a "comfort level" that changes of this kind are compatible with the core obligations and duties that define the scope of our services.
In closing, I would caution against changes that result in any mimicry of the dense and daunting shelter settings of the past. A whole generation of shelter professionals and architects has worked with informed communities to evolve shelters as "destinations" - as places that attract rather than repel the general public. Perhaps the most compelling reason for this historical effort has been that the fate of shelter animals ultimately depends upon our communities as a whole.
Orange County has achieved this desideratum in the design and operation of the county's new Animal Services Center. Visitors are consistently complimentary; unsolicited, they often make very favorable comparisons with other shelters in their experience. As our community continues to converse about cats, we should acknowledge and appreciate this important connection between the general public and our community animal shelter. In the end, it may well be one of the most valuable assets we have in promoting the welfare of homeless companion animals.