The accidental killing of a family pet has animal-control experts promising policy changes at the Jackson County Animal Shelter. It is also shining light on the problem of feral cats.
Priscilla Farrel's 4-year-old cat, Max, went missing from her southeast Medford home in mid-December. As she searched for the orange, male cat in her gated community, Farrel was unaware her micro-chipped pet had already been euthanized, along with several feral cats, by shelter staff. (Correction: The spelling of Priscilla Farrel's name has been corrected throughout this article.)
Spay/Neuter Your Pet, Jackson County's nonprofit spay/neuter referral and assistance organization, acts as a referral service providing information on low-cost spay/neuter programs in Jackson County. Call its helpline at 541-858-3325 for information.
"He was dead before we had a chance to know he was missing. The shelter let us down. And they let Max down, which is more important," Farrel said.
Trapped as a nuisance animal by a neighbor who had been bringing feral cats to the shelter all week, Max was taken to the shelter on Dec. 15. He was not checked for a microchip because he was assessed by staff as feral and "unmanageable," said Colleen Macuk, director of Jackson County Animal Care and Control.
Macuk said she and her staff have apologized to the Farrel family. They, too, are upset that Max was killed, Macuk said, adding that she and local vets are searching for ways to prevent this from happening again.
"We are looking at humane ways to scan a cat that does not involve our staff members having to handle an unmanageable animal, which poses a danger to them and to the animal," Macuk said.
Farrel said Max was a sweet-natured and beloved pet who often roamed outside at will via a pet door in their home. When he didn't return Friday, the day he was killed, she tried to call the shelter but it was already closed.
Farrel arrived at the animal shelter the following Monday. Staff members recognized Farrel's street address as being near her cat-trapping neighbor. Staff checked the bodies of the feral cats and found Max. They notified Farrel later that day that her pet had been killed, Macuk said.
Macuk said Max was euthanized within hours of his arrival — and without being scanned — because he bore the appearance and exhibited the "extremely aggressive behavior" of a feral cat, including tell-tale scabs, scars and scratches.
"If we can handle the cat at all, it's scanned and held at least 24 hours — longer if we can," Macuk said.
Unlike dogs, which are held for three days if possible, there are no regulations on how long cats are held. Cats are not required to be licensed, and therefore provide no fee revenue to the county for their care, Macuk said.
"Our resources are limited," Macuk said. "We're not getting the donations we normally do, due to the economy."
As Farrel continued her search throughout the weekend, she relied upon the fact that Max had a microchip to keep him safe. She assumed if he was taken to a vet's office or a shelter, Max would be scanned and she would be notified.
"I was so sure with the microchip everything was fine," she said.
Micro-chipping does work, said Macuk. Earlier this week another cat was reunited with its owner after a three-year separation. And it happened because of a microchip, she said.
Farrel said she remains skeptical about the shelter's assessment that Max was feral and unmanageable. And she is upset Max wasn't given time to calm down after he arrived at the shelter. Farrel also wonders whether the man who trapped Max might have abused him in some way. Farrel said she is determined to see policy changes implemented at the shelter.
"Max got treated unfairly," she said. "Heaven help the next person whose cat is picked up."
The issue of implementing cat regulations and/or licensing has been brought up and voted down five times by the Animal Control Advisory Board in the past 25 years, Macuk said.
Like all domestic animals, cats are protected from human abuse under animal-cruelty laws. But neither the state nor the county have mandates regulating care for stray or abandoned cats, Macuk said. The county shelter provides collection, adoption and euthanasia services for homeless cats and kittens as a service to the community, she said.
Cats are considered personal property, and while owners can and have been held civilly liable for their felines' actions, there is no law in Jackson County that prohibits owners from allowing a cat to roam free, Macuk said.
In 2010, the shelter handled almost 3,000 lost, owner-surrendered and feral cats and kittens, Macuk said.
"We take in more than 1,000 wild cats a year," Macuk said.
Statistics show a female feral cat, and her offspring, can produce up to 100 new cats in a year.
Feral cats are not trapped by shelter employees. They are brought in by the public, Macuk said.
Wild cats are deemed unsuitable for adoption. They are not warehoused by the county shelter to live out their lives in pens or cages. They are humanely destroyed, Macuk said.
Kenn Altine, director of the Southern Oregon Humane Society, said he is sympathetic both to the Farrels' loss and the shelter's dilemma.
The real problem is pet overpopulation, he said, adding that feral cats are a "national epidemic."
"We have to look at what is the symptom and what is the cause. At the end of the day, we're treating the symptom," Altine said.
SOHS took in almost 400 owner-surrendered cats last year, a fraction of the population of animals seen at the county shelter, which is mandated to accept all animals, Altine said. Because SOHS policy allows it to screen for and accept only animals surrendered by owners, or which come from another shelter, and are deemed adoptable, his staffers rarely have to deal with euthanasia, Altine said.
Dogs left tied to trees or kittens left in boxes by those thinking they can anonymously abandon an animal at the "no kill" SOHS facility are immediately taken to the county shelter, he said.
"There needs to be a lot more done to promote spaying and neutering, and educating everyone," Altine said.
Macuk said she has received both comforting and condemning calls from the public as Max's story has unfolded in the media. She and her staff continue to search for ways so "this doesn't happen again," Macuk said.
"We're looking at all possibilities that we can, given our funding and our resources," she said. "Our hope is that this whole (process) for Max will result in improvements."
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.